I feel like a grouch complaining about Million Dollar Arm, the latest feel good sports drama from Disney, but it’s too astoundingly weak of a film to garner much enthusiasm or find anything really praiseworthy in it. Every single thing you would think is going to happen in this film happens exactly when and where you would expect it, and not even the film’s considerable above and below the line talents can make any of this all that entertaining. It’s a big tub of vanilla ice cream devoid of any toppings or even a nice bowl to put it in. It’s a sports movie feeding trough, sadly no more and no less.
Sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is in trouble. Having not landed a high profile client in ages, his independent representation firm is on the verge of losing everything. His last ditch idea comes in the form of a reality show to find the next great pro baseball pitcher in India, the last untapped professional sports market in Asia where cricket is king, but all other sports fall into obscurity. He finds a pair of young charges in the form of Rinku (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma), an unorthodox but fast pitcher, and Dinesh (Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal), a moodier fastballer with pitch control issues, neither of whom actually played cricket in their lives. He brings them back to the US for training and tryouts, but with his producer and backer’s insistence that he get them a pro tryout in less than a year with no experience J.B. begins to feel the pressure to deliver on his promise.
This true story comes to the big screen by way of director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, the surprisingly good remake of Fright Night) and writer Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win, The Visitor), two very talented people who have had everything that makes their work special drained here completely in favour of pandering platitudes and wholly illogical dramatic convention. All of their other works, especially McCarthy who should get most of the blame for this film not working, had a raw, lived in quality that created drama and humour. This is pure assembly line product all the way. Not a single character ever does something you wouldn’t expect them to do. Every line of dialogue seems to be gathering dust. It’s a chore to sit through 124 minutes of film, regardless of how decently its shot or how charming the cast might be, if there’s nothing of merit to what’s happening. I kept thinking to myself and begging for something out of the ordinary to happen, and when the credits rolled and everything worked out exactly as I thought it would in the opening seconds, I was terrified I wouldn’t have a single thing to say or write about the film.
The big problem is that these aren’t characters we would see in the real world with real problems. They are one sentence descriptors designed to deliver expositional dialogue. It doesn’t matter if the film stars someone as naturally good looking and effortlessly charismatic as Jon Hamm if you don’t give him anything to do beyond just a smug guy learning how to actually caring about human beings. I’ve seen Jerry Maguire, Draft Day, and literally every other film on this subject that has already tackled this subject. There is zero he can bring to this role because Gillespie and McCarthy give him nothing to work with. The best films of this kind can make their lead at least intriguingly conflicted. Here, Bernstein is a complete shrug-worthy cypher unworthy of enlightenment or even that much sympathy.
It doesn’t matter that you saddle poor Lake Bell with one of the most thankless, tacked on love interests in recent memory, especially when she wrote and directed one of the best films of all of last year herself. She’ll survive and she gets through this like a champ and a good sport. It’s impossible to care about either of the young players when we’re only given one underwhelming scene with each of their families to even tell us why we should care about them. The only amusing characters come in the form of Alan Arkin’s grizzled and almost narcoleptic baseball scout (who I like to think is the audience surrogate) and Bill Paxton’s surprisingly balanced and warm work as the man tasked with training the young men.
Then there’s any potential discussion of cultural appropriation that could be had as subtext, which the film can’t even be bothered with in favour of stock fish out of water scenarios that were tired in the 1940s and further negated by making the film’s villain (the Asian reality show producer, played by Tzi Ma) a stereotype of a different ethnicity. There’s nothing to read into the material here, and even worse, nothing to engage with. It’s also as needlessly overlong as watching a scoreless baseball game make it to the ninth inning. Still, it’s perfectly functional if you want a film that literally says or does nothing and just sits there wanting so desperately to be liked that it won’t take a single chance outside of the playbook. It’s far from one of the worst moves of the year (this year has been too awful for this to even come close), but it’s certainly one of the dullest and least inspiring inspirational films of the year.