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Million Dollar Arm – Movie Review

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Million Dollar Arm – Movie Review

Rating: C- (Below Average)

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Back in the 1990s, Disney’s most common releases next to their animated features and television show adaptations were inspiring sports movies. Whether it was a real-life recreation like Cool Runnings or the more kid-centered Mighty Ducks, they all featured the same formula of the underdog who manages to beat the odds even if they’re at their lowest. Million Dollar Arm is a return to that type of sports film and it has the same generic clichés and story beats that the Mouse trotted out constantly way back when. Inspired by the true story of a program that brought Indian athletes to the United States to play baseball, the film also throws in a lot of obvious fish-out-of-water jokes that only result in undermining these talented pitchers.

The most interesting scenes in Million Dollar Arm are those in which Jon Hamm’s sports agent J.B. Bernstein is making his deals and brainstorming about his next big plan. There’s a real sense of his determination and Hamm does a good job of taking his character seriously, even as the rest of the script gets a little too silly. When things don’t go quite as planned, he plays those parts believably and helps to elevate the material. This is a role that would have likely been played by Steve Guttenberg twenty years ago, but Jon Hamm doesn’t fall into similar trappings. Thus, it’s a shame his character is one-dimensional and that holds true for the rest of the on-screen personalities. Nobody is given depth and as a result, it’s hard to care about whether they will get the girl or make the team. Though, impressively, Million Dollar Arm manages to avoid the big game so often found in these sports movies.

When depicting India, the filmmakers could have taken the opportunity to explore the culture and the wide scope of a large and immensely populated country. However, there are some unfortunate implications as J.B. mainly tours the slums and streets filled with car horns blasting, even though India has its fair share of metropolitan cities and middle-class families. Rinku and Dinesh, the potential ball players, are depicted as intelligent and funny young people with their head firmly on their shoulders. That mostly vanishes when they are taken to the United States and Thomas McCarthy’s screenplay descends into tired humour as they’re turned into caricatures. Suddenly, they are confused by simple elevator functions and are perplexed by a delivery man standing at J.B.’s doorway. One wonders how the real-life Rinku and Dinesh feel about these on-screen depictions of themselves.

Their translator Amit is not handled much better as he does not even feel like a real person and is mostly portrayed as an excitable lap dog. Lake Bell is given the thankless role of being the eventual love interest for J.B. and mostly acts as the “voice of reason” between the two. After seeing Neighbors skewer this cinematic depiction of the significant other last week, Million Dollar Arm reminds me what unoriginal writing sounds like. Alan Arkin is similarly wasted, as it appears that he was available for two days of filming, they threw him in there and directed him to “do his thing.”

One of the biggest problems with Million Dollar Arm is a lot like those aforementioned ‘90s sports films. There are simply no surprises, as it follows a very strict formula that Disney already exploited with The Mighty Ducks, The Big Green and Air Bud. The script uses almost every single expected character and story beat that it becomes boring after a while. There is no spark or even a hint of that Disney magic that sets them apart from the other major studios. It is not difficult to make a fun sports movie that plays with audience expectations and entertain the possibility that maybe the heroes won’t win in the end. It’s ironic that Disney seems to borrow a number of sports movie tropes from The Bad News Bears, because that’s a film that has the edge and originality that’s solely missing in the likes of Million Dollar Arm. One almost wonders if every screenwriter commissioned to write a sports movie for the House of Mouse is handed a guideline with every single plot point they need to exploit.

Million Dollar Arm feels like it would have been stronger if it was a documentary on Rinku and Dinesh, rather than a very fictionalized portrait. When real footage of them and J.B. is run during the end credits, those few minutes present more interesting personalities than the ones in the preceding two hours. If Disney wants to continue producing sports films, there needs to be less restraint on the filmmakers. Instead, they’re asked to sugar-coat the material and turn the stories into comedies with sitcom-level jokes. There are some good actors in Million Dollar Arm and even the production team has done strong work in the past, but the whole project feels too corporate to come off as sincere and inspiring.

Review By: Stefan Ellison


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