Whenever a movie is sold as a “feel good” movie (inevitably the “feel good movie of the year”) I feel my heart grow cold despite the assured “heartwarming” results. It’s even worse when it’s based on a true story. Often this sort of fare is as savory as the organic pellets soaked overnight to be mixed into the ground beef at the local Mexican restaurant; and while it might not be bad for me, it can be no more than the gastronomical equivalent of treading water. But I have a high view of baseball so I thought I could escape Million Dollar Arm, starring Don Draper as played by Jon Hamm, with a few grand professions of love for the Great American Sport.
The story begins with JB Bernstein failing to lure an athlete that would make his struggling sports agency solvent. In a last ditch effort to save the company he pitches a talent contest in India, the last great untapped baseball market, in search of a major league prospect. JB is a forsworn bachelor and his ease and enjoyment of solitude (punctuated by supermodels) is contrasted with Aash, his partner, and his frantic placation of his young twins. It’s suppose to be funny that JB’s descends into a chaotic family lifestyle when Dinesh and Rinku are brought to the States with a translator/coach named Amit to live in JB’s pad. JB must give up his single lifestyle, care for the three men in his charge and woo the single tenant that lives in his backyard apartment. This is accomplished in due time despite ginned up conflict from characters acting against their own self-interests.
The humor is primarily fish-out-of-water fare, with JB expressing annoyance at the lack of water and the three Indian friends (when they arrive in the States) in slackjawed wonder over how great America is. Perhaps this is indicative more of Americans than the filmmakers, that we do not have the capacity to express interest in a foreign nation. The jokes are all along the lines of how different (re: primitive) India is compared to the States, lacking lawyers, business acumen and the Protestant work ethic. The Taj Mahal is given a cameo, hastily described over the phone by JB as being “white, except where it’s red. There’s a goat out front,” and then we are treated to the sight of Alan Arkin sleeping in front of it. Majesty is swept aside by a cool meh. More attention is paid to a plastic replica; in true Disney fashion, chintz his given the highest billing.
When they all return to the U.S. the joke remains derogatory toward the foreign; their naivete over elevator doors and wonder at the opulence of a decadent party; the fine cuisine of delivery pizza as compared to the bowel inducing woes of their native food. That the ball field on the campus of USC is presented with more awe than one of the seven wonders of the world is endemic of filmmaker’s deafness.
Perhaps one of the more striking contrasts is when Amit asks JB where he prays. In searing Don Draper tone, JB responds, “I don’t pray. I work.” The remark is later driven home when JB is seated to a meal prepared by his guests thanking him for the opportunity and to apologize for blowing it. As they are about to pray JB’s phone rings. He answers it, to everyone’s great annoyance, but their attitudes change when he announces that he has procured them one last tryout. His rudeness is swept aside when in the next scene he sits with them and plays along in their rituals. But it remains true that JB doesn’t pray, he works. And once he’s informed about his lack of care for others he is rewarded with success. The prize is cheapened by the ease in which he accomplishes it, but I suppose too much strain would limit the heartwarming affects. At the risk of discrediting myself let me compare it to similar, but far better, film.
Jerry Maguire came out in 1996 and became an instant classic. Jerry is also a sports agent whose life is thrown into disarray, but instead of struggling due to the lack of integrity in others, as in Million Dollar Arm, Jerry brings about his own downfall. At the root of his transformation is the virtue fidelity, initially (and mistakenly) identified as loyalty. He is ousted from his firm and reduced to one secretary and two athletes, one of which betrays him. He falls into a romance with the secretary, spurred by self-love and his sense of duty to her than out of true love. Jerry’s remaining client teaches him that he must learn more than loyalty, he must learn fidelity. Loyalty is tied to the past, whereas fidelity is love reaching from the future and therefore transformative. It is a potent story, but sadly its lessons are lost on Million Dollar Arm.
To be fair, the movie is not without its charms. Alan Arkin as the quasi-narcoleptic scout injects every scene with his distinct brand of delightful curmudgeonliness. The Indian cast, Pitobash as the translator and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) and Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) as the pitchers, play their roles perfectly. There’s also the India born Aasif Mandvi who is quite competent in the winsome if scolding role of JB’s partner. But overall it is a pretty rote and loveless exercise of the Disney machine.
I realize that I am out of step with the modern world, but I do not watch movies to feel good. I want movies to draw me into the trials of a stranger; I want to see the realities of sin and the foundations of grace; I want to see the strangeness of life; I want my view of the world to be made new in the personal oddity of humor. In short, I want to be surprised by individuals, pulled out of myself, challenged and thrilled. I don’t even require every movie to hit each cord equally, or to even hit each cord, but some combination of the above is what evokes an appreciable response. Movies like Million Dollar Arm are nothing more than the cinematic prozac, everything’s on an emotional even keel, with the highs never too high and the lows never too low.