'Million Dollar Arm' fails to hit a home run

The Fresno BeeMay 14, 2014 

There's a natural energy that comes out of sports movies — especially those dealing with baseball — that makes them easy to like. It's the pulsating beat of competition blended with endearing human stories that tend to make them a hit.

"Million Dollar Arm" is the latest offering in the genre, and it has its endearing and engaging moments. But the sports part of the story is the least interesting. It's a case of hating the game but liking the players.

Jon Hamm makes a minor switch, going from the emotionally mangled, occasionally smarmy Don Draper on "Mad Men" to playing an extremely similar character in sports agent J.B. Bernstein. When his company reaches the brink of financial ruin, he comes up with a cockeyed plan to create a spectacle out of finding the first major league pitcher from India.

Baseball's not big there. But Bernstein is sure the strong arm of a cricket player can be fine-tuned to pitch at a Major League level.

Bernstein's trip across India — accompanied by a cantankerous baseball scout (Alan Arkin) — ends up an exercise in redundancy. There are only so many times a young athlete can be shown throwing a baseball into the sky or dirt and be interesting. Those scenes are like watching batting practice — you know it's important but things don't get exciting until later.

It does help that Bernstein connects with Brenda (Lake Bell), the woman who is living in his guest house. Hamm does a great job of showing the heartless nature of a sports agent, while Bell's character provides the emotional core that gives the movie most of its special moments.

"Million Dollar Arm" begins to build momentum once the two potential pitching prospects are found — Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma). There's a sweet innocence to watching them be transported from small communities in India to the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. But, the fish-out-of-water storyline is nothing new.

It's the nature of the sports agent character to be distant and cold. That's why it's great that Bell's character is there to connect with the scared young athletes. Her performance is the perfect blend of sweetness, independence and nurturing. A focus on Bell's character would have made a far more interesting movie.

As would be expected, Hamm's character goes through a change. Either it's the fact that such an epiphany is expected or that Hamm can't credibly pull off the transformation, but the change doesn't offer any dramatic charge.

Because of the sports theme, it's easy to want to lump "Million Dollar Arm" in with movies like "Field of Dreams." It has more of a resemblance to "Jerry Maguire." The money matters dilute the sports angle so much it keeps the film from being the home run it should have been. But it still drives home some entertaining and sweet moments.

Movie review

"Million Dollar Arm," rated PG for mild language, adult themes. Stars Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Madhur Mittal, Suraj Sharma, Alan Arkin. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Running time: 2 hours. Grade: B-

Theaters and times

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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