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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Jon Hamm (center) and his Indian proteges star in "Million Dollar Arm," now playing.

"Million Dollar Arm" shortchanges charming cast, Indian characters


A relative unknown just less than a decade ago, Jon Hamm has quickly established himself as one of the most understatedly charismatic actors currently working. He helped turn Don Draper into one of the most iconic yet still nuanced TV characters in history, and with one scene, he pretty much single-handedly redeems the 2012 indie dramedy "Friends with Kids" (written and directed by his partner Jennifer Westfeldt).

Even his mere voice soothingly turns Mercedes-Benz ads into the coolest car commercials out there.

He's so innately charming and charismatic, in fact, that he manages to make his character in Disney's "Million Dollar Arm" – sports agent J.B. Bernstein – almost likable, possibly his most impressive feat yet. Even with the eventual dollop of standard-issue feel-good redemption, it's hard to see past the character's inherently corporate, cynical motives and often glaring disconnect from reality.

But that's where Hamm comes in, making the character and the whole baseball without borders movie more enjoyable and digestible than one's brain wants to allow. The real life Bernstein couldn't have pitched it any better. In fact, that's how most of "Million Dollar Arm" feels: like a movie that Bernstein himself pitched to Disney about this awesome thing that he did and how he totally became a better person by the end of it. Also: There were some Indian people involved.

When the audience first meets Bernstein, he's a sports agent trying to make it on his own with his own company. Things are going slow though. Neither he, nor his lone business partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi), have really signed any clients, and their great final hope, a star linebacker from St. Louis, is leaning toward their powerful rivals.

Yes, times are rough for J.B., who proceeds to throw a mini-tantrum in his gorgeous Porsche, blow off steam by going to a Lakers game in likely $100 seats and go home to his terrific, spacious house where he can ignore his beautiful subletting nurse neighbor Brenda (Lake Bell) because she's no model and merely "cute." Relatable, no? I want to live in a world where Lake Bell is just "cute."

Flipping channels between "Britain's Got Talent" and cricket, however, a bolt of inspiration strikes Captain #FirstWorldProblems. They'll go to India to hold a contest to find the country's best cricket players, bring them to America and turn them into baseball pitchers.

The winners at worst get $100,000 – with a chance at a million – while J.B., Ash and their chilly business investor get to strike oil by bringing baseball to the open Indian market. Think of all the t-shirts, hats, jerseys and merchandise they'll be able to sell, shrewdly pitches Bernstein. Think of the untapped potential money. Could you possibly think of a more noble mission? Three cheers for mild cultural imperialism!

Of course, as he travels through India and back to America to oversee the boys' training (Bill Paxton plays their trainer at USC), our Christopher Columbus of shallow corporate cynicism learns about the values of family, love and thinking about others first. Alan Arkin shows up along the way to do the same thing Alan Arkin does in every movie nowadays. There are very few surprises.

You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned the two Indian boys, Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh (Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma, the latter previously seen battling CG tigers and waves in "Life of Pi"), chosen as the contest winners and brought to America to learn baseball in a year, nor Amit (Pitobash), the baseball fanatic who works for J.B. in India and continues on to America. For free, of course. That's actually what endears him to J.B., the same guy who tells Brenda that he, essentially her landlord, doesn't have the money to fix her washing machine while standing in the shadow of his sleek, modern mini-mansion.

Anyways, I haven't mentioned Dinesh, Rinku and Amit until just now because "Million Dollar Arm" unfortunately has little interest in them. They are given a lesser form of "The Blind Side" treatment, which involves being pushed out of one's own story and turned into a mere side character or plot device for the sake of a significantly less interesting white protagonist.

These young men are going on a true journey, leaving their homes and families for a completely new world, with barely a rudimentary knowledge of the language much less the culture, to try to accomplish a seemingly impossible feat. Their story is incredible, yet they are secondary, barely realized characters (Amit gets slightly better treatment in the screenplay than Dinesh and Rinku). They're finally introduced 30 minutes into the film and even then, they're only really around to help our cynical protagonist predictably evolve and learn trite lessons about how not to be a callous, shallow human being.

It's especially disappointing considering the screenwriter is Thomas McCarthy, whose previous writer-director efforts ("The Visitor," "Win Win") found sincere, complicated humanity and nuanced heart for all in seemingly run-of-the-mill stories.

Judging by the workmanlike results on display here, however, it would seem "Million Dollar Arm" was just another paycheck, another job. There's a touch of wit in the dialogue, and McCarthy gives the boys at least a few scenes to briefly talk about their thoughts, but there's little to them other than skimming surface-level emotions. For the most part, the script simply stays its predictable course, laying out its typical redemption plot while an infinitely more fascinating story sits off to the side, waiting to be told.

As any marketing or PR expert might advise, however, throw some happy, attractive faces on it and maybe it'll pass. And like many ads, no matter how much you try to convince yourself it's not working, it's kind of working.

Hamm manages to sell the role with upsettingly easy charm and charisma. Even when the character is a tool, you don't mind spending time with him, something exclusively attributable to Hamm.

Mittal, Sharma and Pitobash bring much more humanity to their characters than is on the page. They're sweet and genuine performances, essential for what could have just amounted to a lot of fish-out-of-water clowning. Meanwhile, Mandvi is a fun presence, and Bell is still one of Hollywood's most under-appreciated actresses (check out her directorial debut "In A World …" for more evidence of that), her sharp, zippy delivery refreshing a very familiar role.

The real scene stealer, however, is Allyn Rachel, who plays Hamm's assistant. She maybe has ten lines of dialogue, but her mere facial expressions – namely one part overhearing a conversation about discreet photos – are the most amusing parts of the film.

All the while, director Craig Gillespie ("Lars and the Real Girl," the "Fright Night" remake) does a serviceable job moving the story along its very conventional path, given a significant energy boost from A.R. Rahman's brisk Indian-heavy score.

I guess it comes as a mild recommendation that – thanks to Hamm, the rest of the cast and crew, and one's inherent desire for nice, happy feel-good – I couldn't hate "Million Dollar Arm," no matter how many times while watching it that I really wished I could.



Theaters and showtimes for Million Dollar Arm
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