Thursday, April 21, 2016

Million Dollar Arm (2014)

Director: Craig Gillespie                                Writer: Thomas McCarthy
Film Score: A.R. Rahman                             Cinematography: Gyula Pados
Starring: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton and Aasif Mandvi

It’s pretty obvious that Million Dollar Arm is a Disney film, but it is still an absolutely delightful tale. Part Slumdog Millionaire and part Jerry Maguire, it’s the true story of a down-on-his-luck sports agent who decides to put on a contest in India to look for hidden pitching talent that he can then market to Major League Baseball. Disney has a rich history with corny sports stories, though fictional fantasies like Angels in the Outfield are not nearly as successful as true stories like The Rookie. This is one of the later. The film is based on the story of J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent who worked his way up in the business on the advertising end, first in general advertising and then with Major League Soccer and the Upper Deck baseball card company. It wasn’t until he began doing marketing campaigns for a high profile sports agency that he eventually branched off into athlete representation on his own, as agent for the likes of Barry Sanders, Emmett Smith, and Barry Bonds. The idea for the film began with the video footage taken of his two Indian pitchers, which led to the commission of a screenplay telling their story. Eventually Disney acquired the rights, had their own screenplay written by Thomas McCarthy, and handed the project over to director Craig Gillespie who had previously filmed the remake of Fright Night for Dreamworks.

The story begins with a close up on sports agent Jon Hamm making a pitch to football sensation Rey Maualuga. But it’s not. He’s just practicing for partner Aasif Mandvi, who is almost overly enthusiastic. But the real pitch to Maualuga goes south when the player says he’s been talking with another agency who can give him a million in cash just to sign. Hamm, broke, has no way to match the offer. Intensely frustrated, Hamm can’t even pay the rent on his office space because all of his major clients have retired. He knows of a Chinese investor, Tzi Ma, looking for opportunities in sports with overseas talent, but not how to utilize it. Then, in a wonderful scene, Hamm is watching television alone and on adjacent channels are Britain’s Got Talent and the cricket match. This gives him the hook he’s been looking for with Ma, a contest in India to find a pitcher with enough talent to sign a major league baseball contract. Ma likes the idea, but wants Hamm to get a player signed in one year instead of the two he originally proposed. Of course Hamm, desperate, agrees, and the hunt is on. The first thing they need is a trainer willing to teach their prospects to throw. Bill Paxton, an eccentric coach with unorthodox teaching methods, is finally convinced to take on the project. They also need a major league scout to go along on the trip to India to accurately assess the prospects and help select the winners of the contest, aptly named, "The Million Dollar Arm." The only one willing to go, however, is the cantankerous Alan Arkin.

At the same time all of this is happening, Hamm is renting out the bungalow in the rear of his expensive house to Lake Bell, a beautiful med school student with whom he has little more than a landlord-tenant relationship with, and he asks her to look after the place while he’s gone. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is the trip through India looking for pitchers. The biggest shock for Hamm once he’s over there, however, is the extremely slow throwing speeds the Indian’s have. But a couple of boys, Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, show promise, and have what Arkin calls “juice.” The real story takes place when the boys are brought to the States, both in terms of culture shock and separation from home as well as their ups and downs preparing for a big league tryout. Bell is the one who helps them adjust to their new reality, and along the way she provides a lot of advice to Hamm about taking his responsibility for the boys seriously rather than seeing them as simply a means to raising money for his agency. Two threads weave themselves together in the end, Hamm’s realization about the human element of his project in the two boys that he has come to see as more than just clients, and his affection for Bell who helps him overcome his obsession with work and embrace life in a way that he never imagined for himself.

The casting for the film is certainly a large part of its success. Jon Hamm is perfect as the Type-A businessman precisely because he is so charming and doesn’t give off that kind of vibe. It makes his ultimate transformation that much more believable. Lake Bell is also exactly right as the woman who is attracted to Hamm, but absolutely refuses to be sucked into his lifestyle. She makes it clear that he will have to come to her by demonstrating a side of himself that he didn’t know existed. The two boys, Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, are also the best possible choices as they exude a charm and naiveté that is essential for the story. The other Indian actor, Pitobash Tripathy, playing comedy relief as the unpaid assistant and translator for the boys, does an exceptional job as well. Alan Arkin is, of course, a comedic master, while Bill Paxton's surprisingly subtle performance is extremely effective. Though the film breaks no new ground, relying on tropes that have been honed by Disney into something one critic called their, “inspirational sports formula,” it still delivers a fresh take on the genre and wrings the expected sentiment in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Craig Gillespie’s work is solid and smart. His setups are deceptively simple and yet capture a mood that is just right for the piece. The entire Indian segment in the first half of the film is extremely well done, and sets the artistic tone for the rest of the picture. Million Dollar Arm is a feel-good film that delivers, and for fans of the genre it comes highly recommended.

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