By Daniel Barnes
One of the mercenary businessmen in Craig Gillespie’s schmaltz delivery mechanism Million Dollar Arm refers to India as “the last untapped market.” It’s intended to be a dig at the moral vapidity of global capitalists who worship money and treat humans like assets, but it’s a statement more evocative of the mercenary/missionary strategy at the heart of this stale film, which seems to have been conceived solely to formulate obeisance in those “untapped markets” to Disney and its subsidiaries.
Million Dollar Arm opens with a familiar incantation for Disney sports movies – “Based on a True Story,” which roughly translates into “Lies, Damn Lies, Aside From a Few Proper Nouns” – and the film never strays from its dog-eared playbook. The proper noun at the center of the picture is J.B. Bernstein, a struggling sports agent played by Jon Hamm. Everyone refers to Bernstein as “JB,” so the movie was almost over before I realized Hamm’s character was Jewish. Curious casting choice aside, that revelation brought a retroactive sting to the film’s strenuous assertions that JB’s life is empty without prayer.
As the movie begins, Hamm is right in his Don Draper wheelhouse as this sleek but emotionally withdrawn huckster, and the opening scene of JB pitching his services to a practice audience is one of the best in the film. JB also has the bleary eyes and perpetual shadow that would typically indicate a drinking problem, but ever the enabler, Disney keeps any mention of it discreetly off-screen.
JB ends up botching the big pitch to an NFL superstar, and loses the client to the eeeeeevil sports agency ProCorp, whose agents, unlike our mansion-owning, sports car-driving, supermodel-banging protagonist, are seen as ridiculously rich and privileged. It almost made me long for the comparatively level-headed perspective of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, where a young white male super-genius who has fabulously wealthy friends and can fly and throw cars is seen as the scruffy underdog.
In a desperate move to mine undiscovered talent, JB launches the “Million Dollar Arm” talent competition throughout India, hoping to convert hard-throwing cricket players into baseball pitchers. Once the film flies to Mumbai, we are treated to a half hour of tired racial stereotypes (mostly involving the diarrheic effects of Indian food), before hopping back to America for another hour of fish-out-of-water racial stereotypes (mostly involving malapropisms and projectile vomiting).
Hamm is excellent on Mad Men, but dewy-eyed sentiment is a bad look on him, and the supporting cast is excellent only in theory. Alan Arkin literally sleeps through his role as a crusty scout, Lake Bell shows up to check off demographic boxes as JB’s love interest, and it’s never a good idea to rely on Bill Paxton as a sole source of gravitas.
Somewhat shockingly, the witless screenplay for Million Dollar Arm is credited to the actor-writer-director Tom McCarthy. Million Dollar Arm has a lot of superficial similarities to McCarthy’s previous work like The Station Agent and The Visitor – the focus on extended families, emotional repression, and the dissolution of social barriers – but without a single cell of humanity. It plays more like a snide parody rather than extension of McCarthy’s brand of big-hearted multiculturalism. At one point, JB calls India “a study in extremes,” but Million Dollar Arm is a study in soft, squishy middles.