We all know baseball is just a game, but professional baseball is a game with much higher stakes. Million Dollar Arm tells the real life story of struggling sports agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm) who finds himself desperately looking for his next big client to keep his new company (and expensive lifestyle) intact. But his promise of changing his clients’ lives may actually come true when he discovers first-time ball players Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madur Mittal).
After JB and his business partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi) lose a huge client, they find themselves faced with the fact that their dream of launching their own agency may officially be over. But in a move that feels more Don Draper than JB Bernstein, Hamm’s JB comes up with a last minute Hail Mary idea that has him traveling to India to host a contest and hopefully find the next great pitcher. With a million dollars on the line, the try-outs are packed, but the talent is slim and just when JB, Aash and Ray (Alan Arkin as a crotchety, slightly narcoleptic scout) are ready to call it, they discover some actual potential.
Where JB was a fish-out-of-water in India, his major league prospects, Rinku and Dinesh, are completely out of their element in America. Unfortunately it is when Million Dollar Arm returns to America that the narrative starts to lose its footing as it shifts the focus from JB and the boys to just JB. Rinku and Dinesh become as much an afterthought to the story as they do to JB, which works in the context of the film, but make it hard to truly root for the boys since we are never given a real chance to know them.
Hamm works as a fast moving agent who has a soft spot for those he truly cares about (also not a far stretch from his Mad Men personality), but you never get the impression JB actually likes sports. He scoffs at Aash’s love of cricket and seems pained when forced to go to practices or watch try-outs. It’s clear he’s chasing after the all-mighty dollar and while his character (and wardrobe) soften over the course of the film, this change takes a bit too long and borders on keeping JB unlikable. Hamm’s natural charisma helps soften this turn, but the narrative structure almost feels like it is working against him rather than with him.
Cinematographer Gyula Pados keeps the action moving through close ups and fast paced shots which work to mimic both India’s fast-paced culture and JB’s constant “on the go” attitude. But it is when both JB and Million Dollar Arm slow down that some of the film’s best moments are allowed to shine. The introduction of Lake Bell’s Brenda helps anchor the film because she’s the one character actually secure with who she is, something needed in a narrative full of characters struggling to become the people they want to be. Brenda becomes a necessary component in helping these characters (and the story) come together plus her easy chemistry with Hamm help make JB more relatable. (Even though the beginning of their relationship comes across as a bit unbelievable – does Skype ever work that well?)
Sharma and Mittal turn in solid performances as Rinku and Dinesh riding that line between kids forced to grow up fast and teenagers still in awe of the world around them. The duo’s ability to convey the feeling of excitement, fear and determination through a single look makes you want to see more, and even though director Craig Gillespie once again proves he knows how to get dynamic performances out of his actors, but the script unfortunately chooses to focus more on JB than the boy’s journey.
Million Dollar Arm is a story about people wanting to be better and the inspiring resolve behind these attempts. Becoming professional baseball players would change Rinku and Dinesh’s lives for the better, but the true extent of that impact is never fully explored. The film tackles this real-life rags-to-riches tale with the right amount of heart to keep the story interesting without being overly sappy. Million Dollar Arm is definitely an inspirational tale that wisely focuses on those in the game rather than just the game itself, but slightly misses the mark on which characters to highlight.
The Upside: Compelling real-life story works thanks to impressive performances from Sharma and Mittal; quirky Bell works well as the perfect foil to Hamm’s all business sports agent; bright colors and lively camera movements help keep the narrative from dragging
The Downside: Not enough time spent on Rinku and Dinesh’s story; the choppy narrative structure keeps Hamm from developing JB in a natural way
On the Side: Rinku is still a part of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization and is currently trying to work his way back from multiple injuries. Dinesh was released from his contract in 2010. The two were signed to the Pirates back in 2008 with a collective signing bonus of $8,000.