This thoroughly predictable baseball drama wears you down like an adorable dog demanding to be scratched
Nobody goes into an uplifting sports movie expecting much in the way of surprise, but “Million Dollar Arm” hits every note and plot beat with such brazen predictability, it calls to mind every terrible metaphor about obvious curveballs that even rookie batters can see coming.
Still, this “based on a true story” underdog tale is infectiously determined to make you fall in love with it, like a mangy dog that plops its head in your lap and gazes adoringly at you until you scratch it behind the ears. Eventually, you give in and scratch. And then you wash your hands.
Jon Hamm stars as J.B. Bernstein, a down-on-his-luck sports agent who’s just lost a hot prospect to a rival agency. In need of a Hail Mary — and inspired by late-night channel flipping between a cricket match and Susan Boyle’s “Britain’s Got Talent” audition heard ’round the world — he and partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) pitch an Asian investor on baseball’s last great untapped market: India.
They’ll hold a nationwide talent search called Million Dollar Arm, and find an Indian cricketer who can come to America and play baseball, thus tapping into billions of potential T-shirt purchasers, the way Yao Ming did in China. Even though it would make more sense to send Ash, who’s Indian-American, he gets stuck at home with his wife and perpetually vomiting infant twins while J.B. heads off to South Asia in search of a pitcher.
With the help of local baseball fanatic Amit (Bollywood comedy star Pitobash) and over-the-hill MLB scout Ray (Alan Arkin, who seems determined to spend his twilight years giving the same performance over and over), J.B. sorts through thousands of players before he winds up with javelin tosser Rinku (Suraj Sharma, “Life of Pi”) and laborer Dinesh (Madhur Mittal); they’ve both got strong arms and fast pitches, but neither plays or even likes cricket, a fact that J.B. doesn’t learn until after they’ve all touched down in L.A.
After accidentally setting off a fire alarm in their hotel, Amit, Dinesh and Rinku have to move into J.B.’s bachelor digs, where they befriend his tenant, Brenda (Lake Bell), a doctor-in-residency who’s renting the bungalow behind J.B.’s house. Dinesh and Rinku train with USC coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), known for his unusual methods, but they’re far away from home and anxious about their futures.
Will J.B. discover his paternal instinct and give his players the attention and nurturing they need to succeed? Will the scruffy rookies blow it on their first public tryout only to get a second chance to shine? Will skirt-chasing J.B. discover that Brenda has been his soulmate all along? Gosh, what do you think?
While “Million Dollar Arm” cries out for the light touch that John Lee Hancock brought to Disney sports biopic “The Rookie” — Craig Gillespie of “Lars and the Real Girl” and the “Fright Night” remake directs here — its excessive sentimentality will eventually wear down even some of its more hard-bitten viewers. Hamm knows exactly how to play a business type with a gruff exterior that hides a mushy center, and he’s got terrific chemistry with Bell, who could also play this smart and sexy sassmouth in her sleep.
Sharma and Mittal don’t even speak English until well into the film, but their wide-eyed innocence plays effectively, as does Pitobash’s combination of enthusiasm and bewilderment. It’s no “Win Win,” the previous sports movie from screenwriter Thomas McCarthy, but “Million Dollar Arm” offers up the sort of uncynical delights of Disney’s live-action movies from the 1960s; all that’s missing is the Flubber.
If you like your baseball served up with a hot bucket of buttered corn, “Million Dollar Arm” could satisfy you. Just beware of the tummy ache from all that goop.