Cricket lovers might well take umbrage at the way the sport is characterised by American sports agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame) early on in Million Dollar Arm. "It looks like an insane asylum opened up and all the inmates allowed to play," the baseball lover suggests after watching a few overs on late-night TV.
JB is the quintessential American hustler. He's fast-talking, a little shady (his stubble suggests he is not altogether to be trusted) and always looking for a new angle. As played by Hamm, he is like a cross between Jerry Maguire and Mad Men's Don Draper. A one-time hotshot, he has now set up his own agency, which is struggling badly. That's what leads him, by a process of elimination and with a bit of Susan Boyle as inspiration, to the idea of cricket and India. JB comes up with the idea of a reality-TV show that will offer cricket-loving Indian kids the chance to compete to become Major League Baseball pitchers.
As a sports movie, the Disney-produced Million Dollar Arm is amiable and thoroughly predictable, covering all the usual bases before delivering the heartwarming home run-style finale. The film's fascination lies in what it reveals about Hollywood's confused and contradictory attitude toward India. Just like JB himself, the US studios see the opportunities in the country. There are huge audiences to be tapped into and new talent to be harnessed. India has its own flourishing film industry – and it is a source of potential funding, too. Indian media giant Reliance Entertainment has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Hollywood productions. Nonetheless, a wariness persists. Since Fox's success distributing Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, there haven't been many other examples of India-set dramas that have become major hits in Western markets.
In its own gently comical way, Million Dollar Arm plays up the misunderstandings between Hollywood and India – as well as the mutual fascination. Thomas McCarthy's screenplay is even-handed in its stereotyping. India is portrayed as chaotic, sprawling and full of mystics. It's a country in which the cars never stop honking and all business deals are oiled through back-handers. The big city America in which JB lives is a glossy, superficial place, full of money, car and sex-obsessed narcissists – like JB himself. The Indian characters spend their spare time meditating and burning incense. The Americans go to hedonistic parties to drink and take drugs. When they first arrive in the US, the young Indians have never even been in a lift before. When a sweat-drenched JB pitches up in his Indian offices, he is utterly baffled by the culture.
The plot may seem far-fetched in the extreme, but it is based on a true story. There really was a Million Dollar Arm contest set up in India through which two rookies, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, were chosen to come to the US to pursue baseball careers.
It helps that Million Dollar Arm is such a sweet-natured and well-observed film. Hamm, a huge TV star thanks to Mad Men, hasn't always seemed comfortable on the big screen – but JB is, at last, a role well suited to him. It allows him both to rehash his Don Draper-like, alpha male antics and to send them up. We all know that the arrogant and ill-informed deal-maker sneering about cricket in the early scenes will soon discover a sense of humility. In Disney films like this, everybody behaves decently in the end.
The Indian-set scenes are clearly influenced by Danny Boyle's work on Slumdog Millionaire. There is the same freewheeling, improvisatory visual approach, with a heavy use of hand-held camera. The two films also share the same composer in A R Rahman and one of the same leads (Madhur Mittal). Director Craig Gillespie throws in shots of kids running amok, of old men and of seething, colourful street life.
As he strives to find a star baseball pitcher, JB is in constant touch by Skype with his lodger Brenda (Lake Bell) about the state of his washing machine. As they make small talk and he begins to enthuse about his experiences in India, it becomes very obvious that romance between them is inevitable.
Countering the schmaltz is a typically grumpy performance from the great character actor Alan Arkin as the baseball scout lured over to India to assess the locals. He spends most of his time asleep, only emerging from his slumbers when the whistle of a baseball alerts him to the fact that it is being pitched at over 80mph.
The film hints throughout at the ruthlessness of professional sport. The young Indians are completely new to the world of baseball. One, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi), has an extraordinary action which involves him perching for a small eternity on one leg, like a stork, before final releasing a pitch. The other, Patel (Mittal), relies on his raw athleticism to make up for his limitations. The major league teams are ready to reject both of them at the slightest sign of weakness. Chang (Tzi Ma), the wealthy sports investor who finances the reality-TV show, is blithely unconcerned about the effect that failure will have on the two youngsters, who've been plucked away from their homes thousands of miles away. His only interest is in ratings and marketing opportunities.
It wouldn't take very much tweaking to turn Million Dollar Arm into a vicious satire about the sports media. That, though, isn't the Disney way. This is an old fashioned wish-fulfilment fantasy at heart – and the fantasy here isn't just that the players get to live out their dreams, but that, for once, Hollywood and India are perfectly in synch.