Disney checks off all the boxes with Million Dollar Arm, an inspirational sports movie from director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and based on a true story. And by checking off the boxes I mean it’s everything you expect a Disney “inspirational sports movie” to be. It’s wholesome, the one semi-cad among the main characters is completely redeemed by the times the credits roll, and all involved learn important life lessons by the end of the movie. Disney knows how to deliver a happy ending and the Mouse House has perfected the sweet (although formulaic) retelling of a character-driven sports story based on true events. [See Miracle, Invincible, The Rookie, and Remember the Titans for other examples of Disney inspirational sports tales.]
While you may brush off Million Dollar Arm as yet another Disneyfied version of a compelling true story of athletic achievement accomplished against immense odds, you’d be wrong to not give this entertaining film a chance to win you over. With the charismatic Jon Hamm from Mad Men in the lead, Million Dollar Arm plays well to both sexes and to people who love baseball as well as those who could take or leave the sport.
The basic story finds Hamm playing J.B. Bernstein, the head of a sports agency whose big-name (and big income) clients have retired and who’s now fighting to keep his company afloat. Not having any luck competing against better funded, larger agencies, Bernstein gets the idea to stage a pitching contest in India with the goal of finding a couple of cricket players who can be trained as pitchers and given a shot at trying out for a MLB team.
Of course, Million Dollar Arm throws a curveball by making Bernstein struggle with his conscience as he pushes the two winners of the contest into tryouts in front of MLB scouts before they’re actually ready. And of course there’s a love story involving the cute tenant (Lake Bell) who rents Bernstein’s guest house and how she helps J.B. find his way and rediscover there’s more important things in life than being financially successful. Fortunately for audiences, those aspects of the story – while expected – serve to draw viewers in emotionally and make J.B. a relatable, flawed man we can empathize with.
Screenwriter Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, Win/Win) and director Gillespie hit all the right beats in bringing this feel-good story based on true events to the big screen. The actual scenes of Suraj Sharma as Rinku and Madhur Mittal as Dinesh learning to pitch are done well, although they’re of secondary importance to the focus which is on developing the characters as more than mere sports movie cliches. Million Dollar Arm is also elevated from standard sports movie fare by the performances of the supporting players, in particular the performances of Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Pitobash, and Aasif Mandvi.
Million Dollar Arm unspools in a fairly predictable manner and even if you’ve never heard of the true story on which this is based, you know within the first 15 minutes exactly how the third act is going to play out. In baseball terms, Million Dollar Arm isn’t a homerun but it is a solid double, and it’s a film that keeps you engaged and entertained throughout its two hour running time.
Million Dollar Arm is rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content.
Reviewed by Rebecca Murray
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