It may be set in the modern day, but Disney’s Million Dollar Arm, in its corny earnestness, looks and feels a lot like their live-action output from the early 1960s.
Craig Gillespie’s Million Dollar Arm, starring Jon Hamm, would make a great double feature with something like 1961’s The Absent-Minded Professor. Indeed, without too much of a stretch in imagination, one can see Fred MacMurray and Hamm easily switching roles. Those of you who are well-versed in the golden age of Disney’s live-action output (which I would count from the late 1950s to the mid 1960s) will recognize a very similar tone in Million Dollar Arm. Here is a safe, clean sports movie wherein very little is at stake for the main character, nothing horrible ever happens, foreign people are seen as delightfully weird, and the emotional impact is never anything more than merely gentle. The biggest catharsis of the film occurs when a rich white man has to sell his sports car and buy a minivan.
Million Dollar Arm tells the true story of JB Bernstein (Hamm), a sports agent who, in 2008 –inspired by an Indian co-worker – decided to look for baseball pitchers in India. He had just lost a contract with a star baseball player, you see, and needed a gimmick to grab the public’s attention. He held a nationwide tryout in India, testing cricket bowlers, eventually finding Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) two young men who would go on to be the first Indians to be signed with a major league team. The film follows the audition process, the culture shock, the eventual choking up during an audition, and the final triumph with a familiar, bland efficiency that audiences have seen in just about every sports movie ever made.
While Sharma and Mittal give an appealing naïveté, and we really feel for the struggle of the young men trying to acclimatize themselves to high-profile, heavily moneyed American life – they have never left their impoverished villages before this trip to the majors – the emotional crux of the film is more about how Bernstein himself, ordinarily an all-business super-suit, comes to soften to his unconventional family dynamic with them. Thanks to a plot complication, Rinku and Dinesh have to stay at his house, so they begin to form a sticky sweet ersatz family dynamic, largely at the goading of pretty neighbor Brenda (Lake Bell).
Hollywood has an unfortunate tendency to whitewash their movies. They can take a story of a minority group, and somehow make it a story of the white man who was standing closest by. Windtalkers was about the white man who protected the Navajo, rather than being about the Navajo. The Impossible turned a Latino family into a white family. 21 transformed a group of Asians into white kids. At least 42 was actually about Jackie Robinson. Million Dollar Arm centers on the drama of whether or not a rich white sporting agent will be allowed to keep his BIG house, or if his plan will fail and he’ll be forced to move into a smaller one. Meanwhile, there are some perfectly interesting young men from India standing next to him. Perhaps focusing more on them might prove to be a more dramatic tale.
I have also noticed a recent sports movie trend to shift focus away from the actual playing of the game, and focus more intently on the backstage dealing of agents and moneymen. Moneyball and Draft Day, for instance, are more about constructing teams than playing the game. The assumption seems to be that audiences have lost their passion for following the rules of baseball, and are far more interested in the rules of business. This is either a sign that the business side of organized sport has become too large, or that most movie audiences have become too inured to sports movie clichés, and this is the only way to keep the genre fresh. Either way, I think we’re losing something fundamentally appealing about it.
Million Dollar Arm is ultimately harmless entertainment. It’s not offensive or bad, it’s just plain. When people use the term “Disney-fied” as a pejorative, they typically refer to untextured films like Million Dollar Arm. It will suffice on a summer afternoon, will lift your spirits in exactly the way you expect, and it will leave your brain ten minutes later.