From the opening juxtaposition of the Magic Kingdom logo with the warbling strains of A.R. Rahman’s ethnic score, it’s clear what kind of movie Million Dollar Arm is going to be. It’s prefab Disney product: shallow, unchallenging pablum struck through with uplifting sentiment and the usual tiresome lessons about family, faith, and good old-fashioned self-improvement being the only surefire ingredients for happiness (read: netting filthy lucre). The marketing campaign suggests a potentially fascinating premise: the true story of the first two Indians ever signed to a major league baseball team. Bafflingly, however, the Indian athletes become supporting players in their own movie, which is, in actuality, the account of one rich white guy’s journey toward realizing that baseball is supposed to be fun and Lake Bell is cute enough to settle for.
If you’re peddling an iffy product to your unwitting customers, it helps to hire Don Draper for the sales pitch. Jon Hamm sells the shit out of J.B. Bernstein, a struggling L.A. sports agent who decides to organize a nation-wide talent search in India, looking to bring back cricket players capable of transitioning into American professional baseball. His professed goal: tapping that billion-strong South Asian market in what might be an accidental meta-textual reference to the reasoning behind the greenlighting of this film. It’s the uniformly game cast—particularly Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal as Bernstein’s discoveries Rinku and Dinesh, along with Bell as his perfunctory love interest Brenda—that keeps the film relatively watchable. But not even an actor of Hamm’s caliber can avoid looking faintly embarrassed about participating in some of the more egregiously witless scenes on display here.
Consider a sequence in which a particularly beleaguered Bernstein returns home to find that his protégés have cooked an India-themed potluck dinner with the express purpose of uniting him romantically with a sari-bedecked Brenda. It’s a spectacularly ill-conceived riff on the already moronic rom-com trope of the male protagonist realizing that the deceptively unglamorous object of his desire was under his nose all along. Only this iteration—representative of the production as a whole—recasts the film’s ostensible subjects as catalysts for Bernstein’s moments of revelation, reducing them to little more than human versions of the anthropomorphic sidekicks in a million Disney animations. If this were a cartoon, they’d be meerkats or candlesticks.
There are occasional scenes devoted to the athletes’ point of view (phone conversations with family or moments of self-doubt), but they mostly come off as lip service, their anguish reduced to set dressing for Bernstein’s numbingly predictable character arc. If Rinku and Dinesh don’t suffer as much cultural stereotyping as they could have, it’s only because they’re thinly written to the point of becoming faces slapped on a set of values (determination, piety, humility) to be endorsed by the filmmakers. As a result, Sharma and Mittal have little to do but bounce between expressions of resolve or perturbation while the other notable Indian character (a translator played by Bollywood actor Pitobash Tripathy) veers perilously close to the Jar Jar Binks school of cartoonishness. Admittedly, Tripathy’s performance hews to a long tradition of exaggerated Bollywood sidekicks, but, divorced from that context, it comes off as appallingly broad.
The film even squanders the inherent promise of two separate fish-out-of-water narratives. The initial novelty of seeing Hamm and Alan Arkin (wasted as a somnambulant baseball scout) transplanted into the Indian setting is undercut rapidly by a wearying succession of Americans-abroad clichés. The usual checklist has been accounted for, from cows and bribery to indigestion and the Taj Mahal. There’s even a helpful local guide (Darshan Jariwala) to tick off the entries just in case (“Indians like honking and bypassing the system”). Back in California, there’s little effort to engage substantively with the culture shock being experienced by Rinku and Dinesh, the focus remaining mostly on their awed reactions to the conspicuous consumption around them.
The few isolated exchanges that make overtures toward such insight always feel truncated as the filmmakers cut quickly back to Bernstein’s perspective before we can get into the boys’ heads. Similarly, the film feints disingenuously toward examining serious issues like exploitation of athletes and locker room racism, but always withdraws hurriedly into the safer territory represented by pat resolutions and unearned sentiment. Ultimately, Million Dollar Arm feels like a giant copout, boiling an entire culture down to repetitive pastiche on its way to that glittering homogeneous fantasyland of sports-movie magic. It’s the sort of film that a lot of people will pat themselves on the back for liking even as they privately resolve never to actually visit India.