Million Dollar Arm: Comfortable Being A Textbook Pitch

By Nguyen Le · May 19, 2014

J.B. Bernstein’s career is going south, but maybe his titular MLB talent recruitment idea can change that. And it will. No, that wasn’t a spoiler, it’s how things will exactly go considering the film makes no attempt to break out of its skin as a by-the-numbers feel-good sports drama.

Even though the latest inspirational film from Disney is as typical as can be – either by knowing the true story of Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel or the fact the promotional materials plainly lays out this trait – there’s still plenty of charm to be found, most of which stems from the cast.

With roguish charm and presence, Jon Hamm (AMC’s Mad Men) is perfect in portraying the initially irresponsible sports agent, business-over-buddies kind of guy. Speaking of buddies, Aasif Mandvi (Premium Rush) and Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) are adequate as Bernstein’s partner and scout, respectively. Lake Bell (In A World…) is funny and charming being the relaxed, straight-forward love interest. The film’s stars however are Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) and Pitobash (I Am Kalam), providing much comic relief and pleasant moments. Similar to Ron Howard’s Rush, the foreign actors speak in their native language, making the acting really natural and their characters empathetic.

Perhaps the magic lies in Thomas McCarthy’s (Win Win) writing, which is down-to-earth despite treading the same old road. As a result, despite eating up the same bumps of sports drama/cultural bridging films – including a rushed wrap-up for the initially flawed protagonist, the fish-out-of-water theme is reserved too much for Bernstein instead of the Indian cast – moments designed to sway emotions aren’t manipulative, the romance isn’t sappy, the light-hearted tone is organic and the expected story beats don’t get on your nerves.

Or it could be due to the solid direction from Craig Gillespie, ensuring the story always has momentum – like his previous feature the flawed but entertaining Fright Night remake. Also seen here is Gillespie’s evident control over the “who”, “what” and "how to" show said factors in each shot so the film can check the necessary boxes. One can then deduce how great of a time director of photography Gyula Pados (The Duchess) must have had working with Gillespie as every frame serves the actors, storyline and setting. Last seen extensively in Slumdog Millionaire, Mumbai isn’t as stylized this time around, but its beauty and vibrancy remain through the documentary-like approach to camerawork that nicely contrasts the static, more composed Los Angeles sequences.

The highlight of the film, however, is the music. A.R. Rahman once again has wonderfully captured the essence of India through a lively, joy-to-the-ears and juice-to-the-legs music, as previously heard in the Oscar-winning score for Slumdog Millionaire. “Ringa Ringa”, one of my favorite songs in Slumdog, is also heard in the film. The moment the Disney logo comes up and a melody is heard, I want to get up and dance. Much like Pados’s cinematography, A.R. Rahman’s music is wholly supportive to the on-screen footage.

Having a case of déjà-vus seeing Million Dollar Arm is entirely normal, seeing how in the bigger picture it can’t apply any other formula to strive for more. The film is comfortable being a textbook pitch, one that brings home game-going rather than game-changing points.