MILLION DOLLAR CATASTROPHE

Stolid direction and lacklustre performances by talented actors turn an otherwise promising
Million Dollar Arm into one of Disney’s most unexciting productions
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata 

In a summer full of Supermen, monsters and 3D effects (Amazing Spiderman 2, Godzilla), it is refreshing to see that Disney Pictures’ Million Dollar Arm features heroes not wearing tights but  baseball uniforms, and who need to fight self-doubt rather than giant monsters from Japan. Based on the true story of baseball pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, it is a Disney fable of hope, luck, and canny marketing by JB Bernstein (John Hamm), the protagonist of the story.

JB is trying to save his fledgling sports agency after having lost his biggest client. His “aha” moment comes when he is surfing TV channels between Susan Boyle’s audition on Britain’s Got Talent and a cricket match. Connecting the two, he fashions a strategy to get two Indian players into a major league baseball organization.

So far so good, because other than the interesting premise, we have John Hamm playing the commitment-phobic, work-obsessed, emotionally detached JB Bernstein, and we have seen how well he does that as Don Draper in the TV series Mad Men. Cricket, which Bernstein had earlier dismissed with a “It looks like an insane asylum opened up and all the inmates were allowed to play” remark, now becomes his only hope of getting new players for the baseball team, as his partner Ash (Asif Mandvi) says, “China, Taiwan, South Korea have all been tapped.” A surreal trip to India (as every trip to India seems to be for Hollywood), and a reality show later, he gets his two promising hopefuls, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal from Slumdog Millionaire).

The movie falters because, instead of seeing the unforgiving world of baseball from the players’ eyes, it continues to see them from JB’s point of view. They remain in his and the audience’s eyes, two clean-cut young men, strangely asexual, slavishly obedient, with no vices at all other than homesickness, or puking in Bernstein’s car. The boys, along with their sprightly translator — the talented actor, Pitobash Tripathy (who, unfortunately, cannot rise above the caged boundaries of his role) — appear as one-dimensional as a cardboard cutout of Disney’s Pocahontas. Million Dollar Arm ticks all the boxes of a Disney movie — inspirational story, mighty challenges and ultimate triumph, but in making it a pleasant family entertainer, it remains just that, a pleasant, humdrum script, not rising to the greatness of a classic sports movie.

In fact, the movie can’t decide whether it wants to be a good-to-great sports agent story, a rags-to-riches story of globalization and cultural displacement, or a tepid love story. In trying to be all three, it ends up pleasing neither sports nor movie lovers. The characters are likeable, and you want to root for them, but the narrative arc has no high moments of drama, or even genuine emotion; it’s just one unending plateau of unremarkable mentor-protégé scenes that leave the audience unmoved. There are some moments of genuine humour — as when JB realizes that in a cricket-crazy nation, the two sportsmen he has picked up actually detest cricket. Pitobash draws laughs with his ever-present video camera, and the sparkling Alan Arkin does manage to get the viewer’s interest in one crucial scene. But these moments are few and far between. Most of the time, you just go ho-hum at the tale as it rambles and meanders to its predictable finish. Even the final rousing speech of “go ahead and realize your dreams” seems too formulaic and even Chak De’s “70 minutes” speech seems a master class in writing compared to this. Which is a pity, because as the director of films like Lars and the Real Girl, Craig Gillespie knows a thing or two about quirky, unconventional stories. Unfortunately, though, here he suffers from a giant “Jerry Maguire” hangover, which includes the “from money to heart” epiphany, the Rod Tidwell  lookalike, unfortunately without the larger-than-life Tidwell persona.

AR Rahman’s music score fails to deliver as he taps the “Indian exotica” theme, and sometimes the soundtrack feels it would be more at home in an Indian curry house than in a Disney production.

There are good movies and bad movies, and then there are movies that have the potential of being great. Million Dollar Arm had potential, which Disney simply turned into a feel-good, forgettable film — a movie that any audience would remain indifferent to.  

 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2014