For some reason, Hollywood loves baseball. The nation’s pastime, unlike football, hockey, basketball, and soccer, manages to find its fictional way onto the silver screen virtually every year. There are very few blockbusters—last year’s mediocre 42 shocked everyone when it pushed past the $100 million mark—but the fans eat them up.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Producers: Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray, Joe Roth
Writer: Thomas McCarthy
Cinematography: Gyula Pados
Editing: Tatiana S. Riegel
Music: A.R. Rahman
Cast: Jon Hamm, Pitobash, Suraj Sharma, Aasif Mandvi, Darshan Jariwala, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton
US Theatrical Release: May 16, 2014
US Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Cinematically, baseball is rivaled only by boxing. But as successful as Ty Cobb would have been if dropped onto the canvas against Joe Louis, baseball films are always soundly defeated by their boxing counterparts, at least in terms of quality. There are legitimately great boxing movies, from Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler to Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul to John Huston’s Fat City to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (among many, many others). Simply put, boxing movies transcend the sport, examining corruption, male bonding, competition, poverty, love and loss, the agony of defeat, and what you lose giving yourself over to winning a sport. Again, among myriad themes.
But baseball films? I’ll say it: there has never been a great baseball movie. There are good baseball movies, like The Bad News Bears (from 1976) and Sugar, and pieces of Bull Durham. Place them alongside those boxing pictures, and again, it’s a knockout for the sweet science of bruising.
Under no circumstances did I walk into Million Dollar Arm believing that this paradigm was about to be challenged. This is the story of a sports agent, J.B. Bernstein, who apparently is a real human being somewhere in the world and somehow managed to whip up Hollywood’s interest in his personal life. This is first and foremost the point of the movie--Million Dollar Arm is not, as its poster and ad campaign might have suggested, a film about two Indian men who try and make it in the world of baseball. It is about J. B. Bernstein making money, meeting a girl, and then settling down and having kids. The rest is mere filling.
Bernstein’s played by Jon Hamm, who we can only hope is banking his many millions from Mad Men. Here, Hamm seems overwhelmed by even the most remote human emotion, which might work when portraying a repressed advertising executive (though I would argue it doesn’t), but playing a sports agent eager to sign the biggest name in football, a man with friends and colleagues and people he’s supposed to care about, it doesn’t.
The filmmakers—director Craig Gillespie and writer Tom McCarthy—go through every conceivable hoop to make Bernstein, and his business, likeable. Held fast to the supposed facts of the story, they had to keep his agency’s name, Seven Figures Management (SFM), a name that would appeal only to the little Donald Trumps in the audience. To counteract this, Seven Figures’ nemesis is a group of grey suited jerks working for a company called ProCorp. Which is weird considering SFM looks exactly the same.
ProCorp successfully steals away Bernstein’s one client with a “signing bonus” of a million dollars. Unable to meet that demand, he and his partner, Ash (The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi), try and put their heads together to come up with some kind of promotion to save their beleaguered agency. Still, you wonder, why the hell don’t these guys have any money? At one point, Ash mentions past clients, which include stars of the NFL—representing these men would have resulted in more than enough money to support these dudes for two lifetimes.
Sitting at home, despondent, Bernstein notices a cricket game on television, and a quiet sitar begins to play—thus, a plan is hatched. Seven Figures Management is going to India to sponsor a contest, Million Dollar Arm, hoping to find two young men in a country of over a billion people, who might have the talent to compete on the major league level. Not only will this appeal to Americans but could potentially sell hats and t-shirts to all those trinket-hungry Indians.
And now, what was merely baffling now becomes outright insulting. Employing every conceivable cliché about Indian people, Bernstein flies to the subcontinent and is introduced to a man named Vivek (Darshan Jariwala) who instructs Bernstein on how things really work in India, including bribery, tardiness, and other egregious crimes, while of course doing little to really get us involved in the place.
Ah, but I forgot to mention that Bernstein, down on his luck as he is, has rented out a bungalow to a nurse, Brenda Fenwick (played by Lake Bell). Everyone who meets Brenda instantly sees that she is single, straight, uninvolved with another person, and that that Bernstein really needs to go out with her, en route to marriage and a family. This is virtually all anyone will talk about when she comes into the picture.
Brenda, for reasons I still haven’t figured out, continues to Skype with Bernstein while he’s away, allowing him to express his hopes and fears surrounding this contest. He also gets to say things like, when she observes the beauty of India in the background, “you should smell it here.” Brenda will be nothing other than a sounding board for Bernstein, and his Jiminy Cricket, pushing him to be a better man, I guess because that’s an important trait in the potential father of her children.
If it sounds as though I’m ignoring the Indian men who eventually sign, that’s pretty much because Million Dollar Arm does as well. They arrive in the form of Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma), and, tagging along, at first totally without pay (this is a point of pride for Bernstein) Amit (noted Bollywood actor Pitobash) who loves baseball and serves eventually as a translator in the states. Dinesh and Rinku throw fairly fast (mid 80s fastball), the latter having to assume a strange crane movement he supposedly perfected while tossing the javelin. We see, briefly, their poverty. They win the contest, which is presented in such a way as to have no tension, as we’ve clearly been led to believe these two will win, especially since the competitors have no names, no lines in the film, and are also essentially nonexistent.
Instead, we get time with Roy Poitevint, a baseball scout who can hear how fast a baseball is thrown—he’s usually slumped, engaging in a nap. He is played by Alan Arkin. You saw him play the same man in Little Miss Sunshine. He’s not worth talking about anymore, as his character adds nothing to the story and vanishes quickly.
Having chosen his two arms and hauled them back to the States, Bernstein now has six months to get these two ready for a professional baseball tryout. With this in mind, he enrolls them at a University of Southern California baseball camp, run by coach Tom House (Bill Paxton, whom I wished was killed in the movie by an alien of some sort—that’s really what he does best). Of course, there are tons of the platitudes that Bull Durham ridiculed—that Dinesh and Rinku should just have fun, relax, be themselves, all the while ignoring showing us some of the undoubtedly intense training they no doubt had in real life.
Their path to the big leagues, in real life, was more banal, and while they made it to the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system (where they did not advance to the majors), who knows if they actually won a million dollars or not? (The film never really states whether they won that or $10,000 or $100,000… or less, or more.) We do not get to know these men at all. Were this in the hands of people who cared, we’d get something along the lines of Sugar, a little baseball movie about a young man coming to America’s farm system from the Dominican Republic, which was a total failure at the box office.
No, Million Dollar Arm is concerned with J.B. Bernstein, and how he made money on a contest called Million Dollar Arm and met his future wife and mother of his children. The film is the poster child for Bechdel test failure for women and people from other cultures—everyone sees success or failure through the lens of how it will affect Bernstein.
This culminates in a startling scene where Bernstein returns home to find a note taped to his television set. “Gone to India,” it says, and Bernstein shoulders fall in sadness. Suddenly, lights appear in his backyard, and he wanders out, dazed, as Dinesh, Rinku, and Amit stand, like waiters, by a candlelit table and steaming platters of Indian food that they’ve cooked. Out of the bungalow emerges Brenda, replete with a bindi on her forehead and dressed in Indian-style silk clothing. Of course, A. R. Rachman’s romantic score wafts over this mess.
At first, I was surprised to see writer Tom McCarthy’s name attached to this disaster—he’s made two sharp little movies, both very honest about the way people interact with one another, especially when confronted with punishing failure--The Station Agent and Win-Win. However, Million Dollar Arm more closely resembles The Visitor, which was his overpraised movie about an introverted white professor who comes out of his shell when he rents a home that is also occupied by a Syrian immigrant. The immigrant—who’s eventually deported—was part of that long, awful tradition that Spike Lee termed “the magical negro”, namely, a minority who comes to the aid of white men for nothing other than the white man deserves it.
Imagine if Million Dollar Arm really followed these young men. I mean, we get the same story in Sugar, but the eponymous character’s "innocence"—his bafflement at the excesses of America and its national sport—is revealed to be a byproduct of an awful system. Maybe the Million Dollar Arm contest is good (in that it pulls two young men from poverty, though that’s certainly questionable), but for God's sake give these men some dignity.
Million Dollar Arm works, I guess, only if you know nothing about baseball. You also need to know absolutely nothing about sports agents, India and Indian people, yoga, cricket, javelin throwing, baseball scouting, cooking and eating, human interaction, child rearing, the wealthy, the poor, the middle class, nurses, washing machines, how televisions and elevators work, how people get drunk, how they order and eat pizzas, and virtually everything else about life as it is actually lived day to day. Perhaps Million Dollar Arm’s sole benefit is that it shows us, in the fourteenth year of the twenty-first century, that whites still harbor such astoundingly patronizing attitudes to women and people from other countries. And it shows that a decent baseball movie still can’t be made.