Million Dollar Arm, film review: Mad Man pitches up in India and hits the big league

3.00

(PG) Craig Gillespie, 124 mins Starring: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Alan Arkin

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.

India is portrayed as chaotic, sprawling and full of mystics India is portrayed as chaotic, sprawling and full of mystics (Disney Enterprises)
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.

Rinku (Suraj Sharma) wins the Million Dollar Arm contest (Disney Enterprises) Rinku (Suraj Sharma) wins the Million Dollar Arm contest (Disney Enterprises)
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.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones