Only an actor with as much natural charisma as Mad Men star Jon Hamm (who plays ad man Donald Draper in the hit AMC show) could make a money-centric, hard-balling sports agent look appealing, and this is exactly what he does in Disney’s Million Dollar Arm (2014). Based on a true-story and directed by Craig Gillespie, Hamm stars as J.B. Bernstein, who in a last ditch attempt to save his ailing career sets up a reality show contest in India to find fledgling cricket players that he can train up and convert into pitchers that are destined to play in Major League Baseball. Roping in curmudgeonly sports talent agent Ray (Alan Arkin) and his business partner Asah (Aasif Mandvi), the trio fly east to find their players.
Hamm’s Bernstein is full of bravado and industry world-weariness, yet laced with wry smiles that hint at a softer side. He’s a man that thrives on capitalism’s offcuts – smart shirts, expenses watches and a swanky lad-pad. In so many ways his character should be detestable but, this being a Disney movie, a shot at redemption is never far away. The swagger of Hamm’s character is sharply contrasted with the naivety of Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal and The Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma. They play the two aspiring players, Dinesh and Rinku, who win the contest and are yanked away from their loved ones to the US and put through a rigorous training programme by coach Tom House (Bill Paxton, who we see precious little of, while the same also goes for Bollywood legend Darshan Jariwala).
Admittedly, Million Dollar Arm does wander dangerously close to racial stereotyping, yet there is some reality to it all; two young boys, pulled out of the village they are from and tossed into the heady delights of LA, where they stare on wide-eyed. Softening the boy’s transition to the American way of life is Bernstein’s accident-prone lodger, Brenda (Lake Bell). She functions like a peppy Jiminy Cricket, trying to convert Bernstein from his materialistic ways, and after a while become the love interest for our Scrooge-like protagonist. There’s humour throughout, and the hand of producer Mark Ciardi (the brainchild behind many a sports movie including Invincible, The Rookie and Secretariat) is clearly felt. Ciardi was also a former baseball player and a close friend of Bernstein, who consulted on the film. With lavish, warm cinematography capturing a magical-looking Mumbai (for better or worse) and some snappy dialogue between Hamm and Bell, Million Dollar Arm might not achieve anything remarkable, but takes a good swing at it nonetheless.