Million Dollar Arm (PG) - 'drags in the middle, but recovers with a predictably tear-jerking climax that's pretty hard to resist'
Paul Whitington on Disney's new sports drama.
Baseball and sentimentality go together like, well, hot dogs and mustard. The great field game is perhaps the quintessential American pastime, and comes laden down with layers of history, tradition and schmaltzy popular lore. And though there has been the odd cinematic peep at the sport's dark underbelly (in Eight Men Out for instance, or the excellent 1994 biopic, Cobb), most Hollywood baseball films have wallowed shamelessly in cheap sentiment.
Million Dollar Arm might not be in the same league as Field of Dreams, Bull Durham or Pride of the Yankees, but it treads similarly mawkish territory and is all about daring to dream and never giving up and so forth. It is prevented from drowning in a sea of slush by the winning performance of Jon Hamm and a modestly diverting fact-based plot.
Mr Hamm is JB Bernstein, a freelance sports agent who becomes desperate to sign new talent when an American football star he's been assiduously pursuing decides to go with a bigger, slicker agency.
Facing career collapse and financial ruin, JB is sitting at home one night watching cable television when he has a sort of brainwave.
As he's flicking between Britain's Got Talent (the one where Susan Boyle wins, of course) and an Indian cricket match, Bernstein concocts an unlikely idea for a talent contest based in the subcontinent and aimed at discovering the next great baseball pitcher.
He finds out that a good fast bowler reaches speeds in excess of 90 miles an hour: surely, therefore, there are bound to be some undiscovered pitching gems among the country's legion of cricketers. And if India is cricket-mad, what might be the potential of baseball in that untapped market?
He and his business partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) find a backer for their caper in the sinister shape of Chinese investor Chang (Tzi Ma), but when JB gets to India he quickly realises that this isn't going to be easy.
The 'Million Dollar Arm' contest gets off to a terrible start and Bernstein soon despairs of finding anyone who can pitch a baseball straight. He's on the point of giving up when he and grumpy scout Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin) discover a couple of kids who can pitch at 90 miles an hour.
Rinku and Dinesh (Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal) come from small country villages and are overwhelmed by the splendour of Los Angeles when Bernstein takes them back to America for training. JB is convinced the two boys will be his ticket to the big time, but fails to take into account that Rinku and Dinesh regard him as their friend and a kind of father figure and will need protecting from the glare of the spotlight.
Jon Hamm has been lost in Mad Men's hectic shooting schedules for the last seven years or so, but will soon be released from them and may then achieve his huge potential as a film star.
He has the square-jawed wholesomeness of Gary Cooper, the easy charm of Cary Grant, and holds this film together with a typically nuanced and authoritative performance.
There's a touch of the Scrooges to JB Bernstein's story, in that he starts out as a self-obsessed, goal-oriented bachelor who must learn how to care for others. Hamm brings this out very effectively, helped by a winning supporting turn from Lake Bell as a wise and beautiful neighbour.
Million Dollar Arm drags a bit in the middle, and the Indian boys' travails during training become a bit repetitive after a while. But the film recovers itself in a predictably tear-jerking climax that's pretty hard to resist.
Tom McCarthy's script is nicely jokey, but takes a rather patronising stance on India. Baseball is presented as offering a lifeline to desperate peasants, but the producers may not be aware that Indian cricketers earn millions in that country's T20 Premier League and are treated like movie stars.
But at least Hamm's character finds out that American arrogance is not always the answer and learns a lesson in humility from his wide-eyed young charges.