Million Dollar Arm is an okay movie that suffers from a lack of cohesion and structure in its narrative. None of the problems break the film, but midway through, I couldn’t help but think that the director had fallen asleep at the wheel. And I feel bad that I’m going to spend most of this review criticizing a film that isn’t bad and also has a character with my name in it.
In 2008, J.B. Bernstein, a struggling sports talent agent running a firm on the edge of bankruptcy got the idea to travel to India and run a program where kids would compete in a pitching contest, wherein whom the winner would not only receive cash money but the opportunity to travel to the States and become a professional American Baseball player. He found those two kids – Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma – Pi from Life of Pi) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal – the older brother from Slumdog Millionaire) who could both pitch in the high 80mph range, brought them to the States, and put them through some rigorous training where they were eventually signed by the NBL for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Along the way, he saved his firm, and he started a relationship with the woman who would become his wife (and remain so today).
The movie, is pretty much that true story played out, and it does a lot right. For example, Jon Hamm is an excellent casting choice for J.B. Bernstein. He’s handsome, charismatic, and his Don Draper business-integrity persona is perfectly suited for what he does in the film. The two pitchers are great too, both of whom play the innocent but driven role well. Bill Paxton, who plays pitching Coach Tom House, is…Bill f***ing Paxton. And Alan Arkin plays the same character he played in Argo.
In fact, Argo seems to be a big inspiration behind a lot of the creative decisions made in the first two acts of the film, in addition to the obvious Moneyball similarities. When Bernstein goes to India and kicks off the “Million Dollar Arm” competition, the film really balances atmosphere, levity, and story progression well. The characters introduced have their roles made clear at the start and it really helps keep it together. If there’s a problem, it’s that the two main pitchers are introduced and characterized a little later than they should have been, but seeing as how they run away with some of their early scenes, it’s not the worst thing.
The real problems start (or appear to start) around the middle once J.B. Bernstein and the boys come home. The film abruptly changes tone, draws up a character conflict rather hastily, and then pretends that this conflict has been driving the film since the beginning.
To elaborate, Bernstein’s motives was the main pilot for the film’s first two acts, but when those motives come into conflict with the needs of the kids he’s staked his career upon (namely, that he wants to return to his well-to-do bachelor life and turn a profit for his firm, and thus risks negligence for the kids who really need his confidence and attention to succeed), the film doesn’t really know how to organically choreograph it. And the expanded role for Lake Bell’s Brenda Fenwick later on doesn’t compel the way the film needs it to. Her role was funny in the beginning of the film when she’d Skype call him out of the blue several times while he was in India, but when she’s actively in the picture, it becomes abundantly clear that the weak link in the cast is Bell. She’s not a bad actress, but her character has little chemistry with Bernstein.
The film was really working when Bernstein’s perspective was driving the narrative, but when Patel & Singh are given their perspectives as well, the structure bends under pressure. There’s another character from India that comes to the States with the boys to help them out, but once he’s in the States, he has very little to do and the film doesn’t really use him for anything until the very end. This is a common problem a lot of films that tell true stories have. All the pieces are in place for a story, but the connective tissue doesn’t enthrall.
The film makes a few attempts to enrich its middle acts by poking fun at the culture shock, but they’re pretty hit or miss. Some of these problems might have bogged down the film a little less if we got a better sense for them in the beginning. There’s a scene early on where we see a pretty woman leave Bernstein’s house the morning of his departure to India, but it doesn’t have a function beyond telling us that he isn’t married.
Fortunately, while the film definitely has a stretch of stagnation in the third and fourth acts, none of it is unwatchable or stupid enough to undercut the ending too much. It’s a feel-good movie and if your kids like baseball, they’ll definitely enjoy it. Just don’t go in expecting this film to be The Sandlot.
The Good: Jon Hamm, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, the first two acts.
The Bad: The structure, the lack of direction in the third and fourth acts, forgetting characters, the abrupt change in tone & perspective, and some of the jokes.
The Pitch: “Is that a flamingo?”