One thing is for certain when it comes to Hollywood’s movie releases most weekends: there’s usually a pretty clear contrast between the new movies. That’s certainly the case this weekend, with the competing debuts of the umpteenth version of a “Godzilla” monster movie, and the inspirational Disney-made sports film “Million Dollar Arm.”
You could watch the giant radioactive lizard-beast rampage across cities, causing wanton destruction everywhere – after all, it’s clearly fiction, so what’s the harm, right? Or you can take what’s likely to be the road less traveled and see “Arm,” which actually makes an effort at offering good writing, appealing performances and attempting to uplift the world rather than destroy it.
Starring Jon Hamm of “Mad Men” fame in his first leading-man role, “Arm” is based on a the true story of sports agent J.B. Bernstein, who was in danger of losing his business in 2007 after a string of athlete deals fell through until he found a way of thinking way outside of the box.
Bernstein decides to find America’s next great baseball pitcher, not by scouting college teams but by heading to India, where he has a very funny string of fish-out-of-water mishaps. Watching a cricket match on TV one night, he sees that a couple of pitchers are able to throw the ball at blazing speeds. The problem is the players have been trained to throw the ball into the dirt and make it bounce at the batter.
His solution is to find a way to train them to pitch a baseball American style. But flying his prospects to America and caring for them during an entire year of training is a risky investment of time and money. Teaming with a Japanese investor to produce a reality show competition called “Million Dollar Arm,” as well as a feisty retired baseball scout named Ray (Alan Arkin), he gives the shot of a lifetime to two 18-year-old boys named Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma).
Along the way, Bernstein has to change a few things about himself as well. He’s a crabby workaholic who is driven by materialism and can’t manage to maintain a relationship. But with an attractive doctor named Brenda (Lake Bell) as the next-door neighbor who takes a nurturing interest in the scared young foreigners, finding the motivation to shift his way of living isn’t that hard after all.
“Million Dollar Arm” continues a long tradition of family-friendly Disney sports films like “Miracle” (about the 1980 US Olympic hockey team) and “Invincible” (about a garbage man who became a player for the Philadelphia Eagles) that provide inspiration without resorting to sappiness. Rather, they pull off the all-too-rare feat of being intelligent films for adults that just happen to be clean enough for kids. And with the pitchers who are so central to “Arm” being teenagers themselves, this is a movie that should hold strong appeal for young boys with dreams of playing baseball.
Hamm and Bell deliver strong, nuanced performances as Bernstein and Brenda, giving us a believable relationship between two overworked adults seeking to slow down the merry-go-round of their lives. Kudos go to the script by Tom McCarthy for making Brenda a fully-realized person with brains, charm and subtle sex appeal rather than the cardboard cutout women found in most male-dominated sports films.
The film steers clear of any noticeable profanity, but there is a party scene where the boys get drunk when left unsupervised. However they are clearly shown regretting it later as they get comically sick. It is implied that JB and Brenda begin an affair, as the film fades out on a late-night kiss at her place and cuts to him sneaking out of her house in the morning, as the boys giggle (although they think he has merely kissed her). The sleepover implication is handled very subtly and should fly over the heads of kids. Otherwise, the movie depicts the boys engaged in unheard Hindu prayer, with the non-spiritual JB moving from eye-rolling annoyance to ultimately sitting respectfully with them.
Director Craig Gillespie chose wisely in casting the Indian pitchers, as Mittal scored with worldwide audiences in “Slumdog Millionaire” and Sharma offers his first turn since his unlikely star-making role in “Life of Pi”. Both offer performances that cover all the bases — from fear and wonderment toward their new culture, through the sadness and frustration of early failure, and onto the humor and uplift of their quest.
Much like the tough odds faced by these underdog foreigners, “Million Dollar Arm” won’t have an easy time drawing public attention against “Godzilla.” But those willing to give it a chance will find they picked a winner.