By Drew Taylor | The Playlist May 14, 2014 at 6:02PM
In terms of in-house branding, the "Disney sports movie" has almost as much instantly recognizable cachet as something like their animated princess movies or Marvel superhero flicks. Movies like "Cool Runnings" up through "Remember the Titans" and "Miracle" have the same general, crowd-pleasing formula of being based on a true story, set in the past (either immediate or distant) and featuring a truly likable lead who, against all odds, triumphs at the end. These movies are as warm and comforting as your favorite old sweatshirt. And usually they're just as surprising. With "Million Dollar Arm," the awkwardly titled new Disney sports movie, the studio mixes up the formula with mostly winning results; the unpredictability does them some good.
The story is based on actual events: in 2008, a desperate sports agent named J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) concocted the idea for "Million Dollar Arm," a reality TV competition/publicity stunt that awarded a million dollars and the possibility of being signed to a Major League Baseball team. The movie charts Bernstein's journey to India, accompanied by a cantankerous scout (Alan Arkin, of course) and an ambitious local translator (Pitobash Tripathy), and what happens after he brings back the contestants, a pair of young, mostly untrained cricket players (Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma) back to the United States with him, to be formally trained (by Bill Paxton's Zen-like coach) for their shot a the majors.
As far as actual sports in movie go, there's comparatively little. A large portion of the movie is built around the fact that the two cricket players don't really understand the mechanics of the game (one of them takes forever to throw the ball, instead balancing on the mound like the statue of a Hindu deity, arms outstretched), so when they are pitching, it's brief and usually ill-fated. Instead, most of the movie focuses on Bernstein, a man who was once part of a thriving sports agency but who left to start his own firm, and has been struggling ever since. In fact, one of the best moments of the involves Bernstein opening up to his tenant, played by the lovely and talented Lake Bell, about what dire financial straits he is in.
Elsewhere, "Million Dollar Arm" resembles a fish-out-of-water comedy, with the trio of Indians (the translator, thankfully, tags along) dealing with modern-day Los Angeles and all of its peculiarities. It's a testament to the deeply nuanced script by Tom McCarthy that though these sequences sometimes threaten to dip into unflattering territory, they always maintain a level of truth and emotional realism. (It helps, too, that the young actors are so good, with Sharma showcasing that his performance in "Life of Pi" was no one-off fluke.) There is a shocking amount of cultural sensitivity, in fact, for a movie that could have quickly descended into "Encino Man"-style gags about technology and etiquette.
There's been a lot of debate whether or not Jon Hamm actually has what it takes to be an honest-to-god movie star. He's had fine supporting performances in things like "The Town" and "Bridesmaids," augmented by a couple of blink-and-you'll-miss him cameos in big studio fare like "The A-Team" and "Sucker Punch." But he has yet to lead a major project, and so the question of whether or not he can bring the empathy and charisma that he showcases every week on "Mad Men" to a larger format has remained largely in doubt. With "Million Dollar Arm," he's anchoring a fairly large project all by his lonesome, and the success of the movie rides largely on his shoulders. Thankfully, he pulls it off. Nobody plays quietly wounded quite like Hamm, and while this movie is largely effervescent, and embroidered with all of the things that you'd expect from a movie set partially in India (sunny cinematography, a bouncy score by A.R. Rahman), the entire story comes from a place of deep-seeded longing and insecurity. For Hamm's character, he wants to prove that he is still a success, away from the cloistered environment of his former agency, nicely parallelling the young Indian characters, they want to be able to succeed on their own terms, away from India. In both cases, the characters just want to make other people proud. And, since this is a Disney sports movie, they do.
"Million Dollar Arm" isn't a total grand slam; the movie's 120-minute runtime occasionally drags and you wish, desperately, that Lake Bell, who wrote and directed her own feature last year (voiceover comedy "In A World") was given more to do than looking cute in her emergency room scrubs and making goo-goo eyes at Hamm. But for the most part, "Million Dollar Arm" totally works. It's not a homerun, but it's at least a double. (Or something. Honestly, we're about as foggy on our baseball analogies as the two cricket players are.)
Special credit should be given to director Craig Gillespie, the former indie world darling behind "Lars and the Real Girl," who transitioned to the mainstream with 2011's terrific, woefully under-seen 3D remake of cult horror movie "Fright Night." With "Fright Night," Gillespie showcased his knack for painterly compositions that were stylized but never showy, and for investing even the most oversized concept with actual human emotions. Here he's able to put those human emotions front and center, and let the trappings of the Disney sports movie sub-genre, recede into the background. It makes for a much more interesting variation on the typical themes of triumphing over adversity and believe in yourself. It's a different kind of Disney sports movie, more textured, gently spiritual and warmly idiosyncratic, but one that still, before the credits roll, will make you want to stand up and cheer. [B+]