MOVIE REVIEW: Million Dollar Arm
June 5, 2014
If you follow baseball, and particularly the Pittsburgh Pirates, then you probably know Pirates pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel and the story behind MILLION DOLLAR ARM. But whether you know the story and its outcome or not, like with any good sports epic inspired by a true story, be it "The Rookie", "Miracle", "Invincible" or even "Secretariat", you still feel that swell of pride, the joy of winning and the beauty of triumph over adversity no matter how many times you watch the story played out on the big screen. However, it's not just the "win" comes film end that envelops and elates, it's the journey that leads to that win, be it a horse or, in this case, a down-on-his-luck sports agent and two young boys from India who win the golden ticket and come to America to play professional baseball. As MILLION DOLLAR ARM producer Joe Roth notes, "I love the second chance stories and I love fish-out-of-water stories and I love the idea that I'm sitting in a movie theater and I'm thinking, 'Wow if these two guys can accomplish that, I can get up out of here when the lights get on and I can accomplish almost anything.'" What producers Joe Roth and Gordon Gray together with director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy have accomplished is the feel good film of the summer. MILLION DOLLAR ARM loads the bases with heart, humor and fun and then hits it out of the park for grand slam entertainment.
The only thing smaller than sports agent JB Bernstein's client roster is his bank account. Although his ego is the size of the Coliseum, Bernstein's glory days as an agent may be behind him as he loses the hottest sports prospect in the business to another agency. His last chance to hit it big and regain his reputation as a moneymaker and go-to-guy for athlete representation is now gone. Or is it? Drowning in self-pity alone at night in his architectural dream design of a house, Bernstein gets a flash of inspiration thanks to, of all people, Simon Cowell, while watching Susan Boyle's talent audition in "Britain's Got Talent" juxtapositioned against another channel flipping find, an Indian cricket match. Thinking outside the box, Bernstein lands on what he thinks is a brilliant one-in-a-million idea - find a baseball player from the least likely and last untapped sports market on earth - India. While his partner Ash thinks Bernstein's lost his mind, he nevertheless goes along with the plan as he has a wife and kids to think of and needs a big payday. Pitching the idea to an Asian investor, Bernstein and Ash get the go ahead for their brash plan.
Modeling the idea after "Britain's Got Talent", Bernstein creates the MILLION DOLLAR ARM sports talent search with the idea being to hold try-outs throughout India for all the young cricketers he sees play on television and have them try their hand at pitching American baseball. The winner gets a cash prize plus the chance to come to America for major league tryouts.
While it would make more sense for the Indian born Ash to make the journey, he is forced to stay home with his family, leaving fish-out-of-water JB Bernstein to his own devices. Quickly learning that cricket players know nothing about baseball and that he knows nothing about India or its culture, Bernstein enlists the help of a rabid young baseball fanatic named Amit, not to mention crotchety old MLB scout, Ray Poitevint.
In one of the most beautiful travel montages to grace the big screen, we are treated to the sights and sounds of India and its people as Bernstein, after seeing 37,000+ young people tryout, ultimately finds his two "Million Dollar Arms" - local javelin player Rinku Singh who threw an 88mph fastball and Dinesh Patel, a young man who does day labor and driving as part of his family business. The kicker is that not only has neither played baseball, neither plays or even likes cricket.
As much as Bernstein was a fish-out-water in India, so are Rinku and Dinesh - with Amit now in tow - in Los Angeles. Never having been to America, not speaking English, unfamiliar with American food and customs, it doesn't take long for disasters to take hold, forcing the boys to move in with Bernstein. Seemingly left to their own devices, and pizza delivery, is the guiding hand of their now-trainer USC baseball coach Tom House and friendship of Bernstein's guesthouse tenant Brenda enough to keep the boys going or will Bernstein finally step up to the plate and round the bases with Rinku and Dinesh?
Baseball fanatic Jon Hamm is perfectly cast as the self-centered JB Bernstein. Pushing the character's self-absorption almost to the point of making one want to leave the theater, or jump into the movie screen and slap the man silly, as easily as Hamm slides into the worst parts of Bernstein, he finds kindness and redemption. It's a wonderful balancing act pushing that envelope to the very brink and it's thanks to Hamm's chemistry with Lake Bell's Brenda that he skates back from the edge.
Describing MILLION DOLLAR ARM as a "movie that moves you" that's "affirming...uplifting...heartwarming...emotional", surprising to Hamm, who loved the script on first read, "I am a huge baseball fan and somehow this flew under my radar." Jumping into Google research mode, Hamm started "finding out everything I could about this. . .It's just this incredibly uplifting story about thinking outside the box and really following through with something and working hard and succeeding."
When talking about Hamm's performance of himself, JB Bernstein admits "I was so focused in my life on business I'd become kind of myopic and the only thing I really took pride in was the deal and getting deals done for my clients and that was my sole source of pride so it kind of became this self-fulfilling prophecy that you know I was defined as a person by being an agent. . .Having Rinku and Dinesh thrust into my life opened me up mostly to the importance of family and having people around you that you love and that you love them and you support each other and opened me up to the possibility of having a wife and kid of my own and Brenda kind of came along and filled that role."
Throwing a real curve is Lake Bell who brings intelligence, style and heart to Brenda and the film. Describing Brenda as "smart and layered", Bell beautifully tempers the grating edges of Hamm's Bernstein, wafting in not merely as a sideline cheerleader in a male-dominated movie, but providing a smart and sassy energy and grounding as not only a balance to Hamm, but with an almost maternal kindness with Surah Sharma and Madhur Mittal who play Rinku and Dinesh, respectively. Bell seamlessly finds the balance of heart and humor making this one of her best performances.
As USC coach Tom House, Bill Paxton is tacit perfection. Calming, almost zen-like, Paxton brings a great calm to the urgency of the ticking time bomb nature of Bernstein and the situation at hand. Joining in the fray is Alan Arkin who, as comes as no surprise, is a curmudgeonly scene-stealing delight as the narcoleptic Ray, particularly in some of the 120 degree heat scenes shot in India. But it's Bollywood comedy fave Pitobash steals the show with his indelible performance as Amit. An absolute joy to watch.
Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Tom McCarthy, MILLION DOLLAR ARM is filled not only with the expected sentimentality and sometimes cliched predictability but, most importantly to JB Bernstein, authenticity. "My fish-out-of-water journey is almost exactly how it happened, down to costumes. Rinku and Dinesh's fish-out-of-water journey is exactly as it happened. The way I fell in love with my wife [yes, he eventually married Brenda!]. . .all the major beats in this movie are exactly how they happened." When talking about McCarthy and the script, Hamm describes him as "a wonderful writer. . .[who] has the ability to make what seems like a simple story resonant in a way that brings so much more to it."
Because of the very nature of the MILLION DOLLAR ARM contest, in 2007 when JB Bernstein embarked on this endeavor, everything was being filmed for marketing purposes. Those very films were used as production tools when recreating the contests within the individual cities, when scouting locations, when recapturing moments, yet with the "reality" well documented and at the filmmakers' disposal, at the end of the day, it came down to those serendipitous moments that elicit the real spirit and heart of the film, particularly when filming "family moments" of Dinesh and Rinku in India with non-actor villagers and family friends of the actors stepping into the limelight with only their hearts as acting tools. Stay through the credits, though, as some of the 2007 contest travels footage plus a pictorial of Rinku and Dinesh unfolds.
Calling on cinematographer Gyula Pados, Gillespie and Pados elected to shoot on film and primarily all hand-held in India, metaphorically eliciting the whirlwind sensation that mirrors the experiences of not only Rinku and Dinesh with the contest and then coming to America for the first-time, but also capturing the cinematic texture and the vibrancy of India, its energy, its life. So intense was the shoot, that over 100 set-ups a day were being done while in India. Once shooting returned to the US, camera work turned to the digital Hi-Def Alexa and became more stationery, more traditional, more grounded and with less fluidity, eliciting the more routine, and lonely, world of aspiring ballplayers in training. The result is exemplary visuals. Standout with MILLION DOLLAR ARM is Tatiana Riegel's editing, particularly with the sequences in India. Not only a beautiful travelogue, but Riegel's rapier cuts and pacing capture the urgency of time, the emotional anxiety and excitement of the contest, while at the same time tempered with a lulling "time standing still" feeling of home and hearth memories. A delicate balance that is crucial to establishing tonal bandwidth of this film.
Speaking of authenticity, Rinku Singh himself has nothing but praise for MILLION DOLLAR ARM and particularly Suraj Sharma, the actor who plays him. "[H]e's not just a great actor, he's a great young man as well. . .I'm very lucky to have a man like him to play in my role." First round picks for anyone, both Sharma and Madhur Mittal who plays Dinesh are both from India. Their families still live there and much of the filming of MILLION DOLLAR ARM in the United States was a fish-out-of-water rookie experience for each of them as well. On the flip side, Sharma and Mittal served as the cultural tour guides and liaisons for the cast and crew while filming in India, becoming indispensable to director Gillespie. Making their performances exceptional was that we are able to see the purity and truth within their performances, both the confidence of being at home surrounded by the love of family and friends, and the wide-eyed wonder at America and the world of baseball. Note: Like their real life counterparts, neither Sharma nor Mittal played baseball or cricket before this film.
Perhaps Rinku Singh himself summarizes the core of MILLION DOLLAR ARM the best. "I think a lot of American kids gonna carry from the movie rest of their life." Not just kids, Rinku. There are life lessons for everyone. " It's not about just seeing a dream, it's about following [on a] daily basis what you're doing, know what you're doing, who you hang out with, how much you sleep, what you eat. . . It's being [about], respect the opportunity."
Don't miss your opportunity to see some grand slam fun with MILLION DOLLAR ARM.
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Written by Tom McCarthy
Cast: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Alan Arkin, Bill Paxton, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Aasif Mandvi, Pitobash
For my exclusive interviews with Rinku Singh and JB Bernstein, as well as director Craig Gillespie and cast Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin, Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal, go to http://www.moviesharkdeblore.com.