With sports films “based on a true story”, you accept that you already know what’s about to happen: the main character will start from the bottom and work their way up, sometimes stumbling back to the beginning, but getting there in the end. The reason you watch a real-life sports film is for what makes it stand out; is it the performances, the script, the visuals? The trouble with Disney’s Million Dollar Arm is that, while it’s solidly made, there’s nothing that makes it tower over this over-crowded sub-genre.
The plot is a slight twist on an old formula. Agent to the sports stars JB (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) is struggling to keep his business afloat. In a last ditch effort, he travels to India to launch a reality TV show to find an unknown baseball player and get them signed up with a major league team.
There’s nothing really wrong with Million Dollar Arm, but it falls miles short of classic status. The acting is all up-to-scratch. Hamm is a gifted actor; he turns on the charm as Don Draper, but can also play a convincing, clueless tool in Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids. Here he makes charisma look easy as JB, who initially sees his talent show winners as an investment, a commodity, but ends up forming a strong friendship with them. Alan Arkin may play tiny variations of the same role, but he’s done a fine job in all of his films. In Million Dollar Arm, Arkin is a grouchy as hell baseball scout who refuses to even look at potential players; he shuts his eyes and waits to hear that perfect strike. Pitobash raises a smile whenever he’s onscreen with his never failing enthusiasm as JB’s right-hand man, Amit. Lake Bell is given the love interest role, but at least her character, Brenda, has a personality; she’s quirky and feisty and given a reasonable amount of screen time. Last but definitely not least, Bill Paxton gives a rare understated performance as baseball coach Tom House. For most of the film, House clashes with JB over what makes a great baseball player. JB believes if you train a player for enough hours, eventually they’ll figure out what they’re doing. House, on the other hand, sees his players as family, adopted children who need to be nurtured, taken care of.
You can’t even fault the cinematography, Gyula Pados giving us different glimpses of India: Bollywood, show business India with its bright costumes, dancing, and blaring music; the diverse landscape of hills, rivers and frantic cities; the ramshackle villages and poverty in India, contrasting with the showy glamour of its film and TV industry.
What lets Million Dollar Arm down is Thomas McCarthy’s script. While the film is dotted with some smart one-liners (“That’s cricket? Looks like an insane asylum opened up and all the inmates were allowed to play.”), it is virtually scene-after-scene of seen-it-all-before clichés. The broke hero who is up to his neck in debt; the underdogs from poor backgrounds get picked for the team; the rousing speech; the point where it looks like everyone is going home, hanging their heads; the players coming back, ready to prove everyone wrong – all of this features in Million Dollar Arm. While you can argue that the events you’re seeing happened in real life – and this is a Disney film – that doesn’t mean audiences should be sat knowing near enough what is about to happen in every scene. When you do that, you’re not engaged with what’s going on; you don’t care about the characters as much as you should. Films based on real-life tweak the facts all the time to make things more interesting and unpredictable; why couldn’t the same happen with Million Dollar Arm?
To sum up, Million Dollar Arm is enjoyable enough – you won’t be in the cinema, angrily kicking the chair in front of you – but it never reaches the giddy heights of Friday Night Lights, The Fighter, or Warrior. Too often while sitting through Million Dollar Arm, you’ll find yourself thinking, “This is about to happen” and it does, pretty much how you imagined it.
3 out of 5