Feel-good sports movie leaves no underdog cliché unturned

Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein in Disney's "Million Dollar Arm." Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein in Disney’s “Million Dollar Arm.” Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

By Gina Scialabba

The Guardsman

“Million Dollar Arm” might better have been titled “Jerry Maguire Goes to India.” It’s based on the true story of the first major league Indian baseball pitchers and their greedy sports agent.

Picture it. A desperate sports agent, J.B. Bernstein, played by Don Draper, I mean Jon Hamm, (easy to make that mistake) goes looking for new talent and a new way to bankroll his expensive lifestyle after failing to land a contract with a high profile NFL football player. J.B. and his partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi) are about to go bankrupt.

Enter the Indian cricket players.

J.B., in true “Mad Men” fashion, pitches the idea of holding an “American Idol” baseball talent contest to his investment partner. The investment partner is predictably one-sided, portrayed as a cold, calculating Japanese businessman driven only by the bottom line.

The contest is called “Million Dollar Arm” and will award $100,000 to an Indian finalist with the potential of a lot more if he is signed to a major league baseball team.

J.B. and his talent scouts go from Jaipur to Kolkata to Bangalore trying to find a couple of athletes talented enough to play professional baseball in the states.

After 37,000 men try out, they finally find javelin thrower Rinku (Suraj Sharma, “Life of Pi”) and laborer Dinesh (Madhur Mittal).

Show me the money!

However, along the way the desperate sports agent realizes the error of his ways, i.e., greed is wrong, too much money is bad, and his self-absorbed soul needs cleansing. In true Disney fashion, everyone lives happily ever after.

J.B. becomes a hero, saves his business and finds true love. The boys learn America’s pastime and get professional baseball contracts. And Disney, well, they make a lot of money in the process.

Did I just spoil the entire movie for you? Hardly. Sports movies, particularly underdog sports movies, follow a similar trajectory.

As a surface-level sports tale, this movie follows that typical underdog formula.

But Walt Disney Studios epically fails here when it comes to their treatment of the Indian culture.

They had a chance to showcase ethnic-related problems and issues in the US from a South Asian perspective, but instead they merely perpetuate stereotypes.

Based on a true story, these talented young ballplayers grew up in extreme poverty that most of us cannot even imagine.

Rinku was one of nine children in the small village of Bhadohi. They all lived in the family’s one-room house.

Dinesh’s parents left him to be raised by his maternal grandmother because they couldn’t afford the added expense of another child.

When J.B. travels to exotic locations in India, we only see the picturesque. Like a travel documentary, the camera pans to the Taj Mahal or young children frolicking merrily in the streets.

Director Craig Gillespie left out a few facts in the film. The number of poor people in India, according to the country’s Eleventh National Development Plan, amounts to more than 300 million.

Mumbai, for example, is home to 22 million people, and over 70% live in slums. Those people have limited access to electricity, clean water, food and educational opportunities.

However, Gillespie simply makes vague overtures and a tepid attempt at portraying the boy’s villages, complete with expertly cooked home-cooked meals and a welcoming parade with elephants.

“Million Dollar Arm” doesn’t show a complete picture of India or Indians. You see a mere slice. The movie shows some poverty, and it shows a lot of wealth. There is no in-between.

Instead the movie becomes a Bollywood baseball fantasy camp, complete with cultural assimilation jokes—the Indian village boys have never been in an elevator. Really? There aren’t any elevators in India? What a knee-slapper.

The movie is also excessively sentimental and lacks the addition of anything new or creative to the sports movie genre.

However, “Million Dollar Arm” does score points for excellent cinematography.

Should you go? It depends on what you are looking for—a feel-good movie? Knock yourself out. A critical look at the exploitation of ethnic minorities in the business of sports and sports management? Don’t bother.

 

If you go……

Run Time: 123 Minutes

Genre: Sports, Drama

Rating: PG

Opening Date: May 16, 2014

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Stars:

Jon HammJ.B. Bernstein

Suraj SharmaRinku

Madhur MittalDinesh

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