Let’s face it, there’s something about a baseball movie that just invites corniness. The hardest hearts soften at the mere sound of a cracking bat. It’s hard for a filmmaker to resist laying the syrup on too thick.
And so it is with the Disney film “Million Dollar Arm,” which makes a direct, uncomplicated, er, pitch for your heart – a pitch that will probably hit its mark, despite your best instincts telling you this movie should really be subtler at almost every turn.
Oh well. Somehow, this flaw doesn’t feel like the biggest crime – especially when you have a high-quality cast at work. The quality starts with Jon Hamm, who by virtue of his well-known charisma, makes a good case for his future film career, now that his days as Don Draper on TV’s “Mad Men” are sadly ending.
Like Draper, Hamm’s character here, the real-life sports agent JB Bernstein (the film’s based on a true story), has a certain narcissism at his core. Unlike Draper, however, this isn’t a deeply drawn character. Whatever faults he displays at the beginning (he prefers to date sexy models, and he wants to make money – oh no!) are pretty much neatly cured by the end.
In any case, the best parts of the story are actually not about Bernstein, but about the two young Indian men he brings to America in hopes of creating the next international baseball sensation – and opening up a huge, untapped market in the world’s second most populous country.
Hence the title, “Million Dollar Arm,” which is the contest that Bernstein devises to find his young stars. As the film begins, Bernstein and his partner Ash (the always entertaining Aasif Mandvi) are searching for ways to revive their flagging business. A failure to land a major account means they can’t even pay their LA office rent. One night, though, idly channel-flipping between a cricket game and Susan Boyle’s famous out-of-nowhere audition on “Britain’s Got Talent,” Bernstein comes up with the idea to find cricket players who might be able to pitch a baseball.
Thus begins a picturesque journey through the Indian countryside – making for director Craig Gillespie’s most compelling visuals – for Bernstein and the wise-cracking, constantly napping baseball scout he recruits, Ray (the reliably cranky Alan Arkin) and a local baseball fanatic working for free, Amit (sweetly played by the comic actor Pitobash.)
Most of the young men they find can’t pitch worth a darn. But ultimately they come across Dinesh (the handsome Madhur Mittal, of “Slumdog Millionaire”) and Rinku (the soulful Suraj Sharma, who starred in “Life of Pi.”) Neither is actually a cricket player. But no matter – they can throw.
Back in Los Angeles, Bernstein gets to work setting up a Major League tryout, hiring a canny baseball coach (Bill Paxton) to get the boys ready in the impossible time frame of several months – a demand of their financial backer – despite the fact that they’ve barely touched a baseball and don’t even know what the glove’s for.
Of course, there are yet more obstacles. The two are homesick. Forced to live in Bernstein’s apartment, they wreak havoc in his dating life. Luckily, the next-door neighbor, Brenda, is a pretty, smart, caring medical student (Lake Bell). This eventual relationship is telegraphed in such an obvious way, there might as well have been a subtitle when Brenda first appears: “SOON-TO-BE GIRLFRIEND.”
Will the two players overcome their lack of training, their nervousness, and the cynical baseball press corps to have their moment of glory? Will Bernstein realize that there’s something more important than making money?
Uh, have you ever seen a baseball movie? (And besides, we told you this was a true story.)
But let’s not nitpick. It’s a baseball movie! It’s heart-warming, and hey, it has Jon Hamm.
“Million Dollar Arm,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for mild language and some suggestive content.” Running time: 124 minutes. Three stars out of four.