There are times when knowing the real story of a film “based on a true story” can ensure that you’re not going to be a big fan of the movie version. That might be the case here, but even if you have no idea what it’s like going in, there isn’t going to be a moment of unpredictability to be found. Million Dollar Arm is already being billed as the feel-good story of the year, and maybe it is. It does cut itself off before it gets to the point where we learn that nobody really “made it” in real life.
Here’s the story. A sports agent named J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is struggling to make money after starting his own firm. After being told by his friend and business partner Ash (Aasif Mandvi) that cricket is fun to watch, Bernstein has an idea: Cricket bowlers throw a ball, and baseball players throw a ball, so maybe there’s a transferable skill present. He decides to go to India and host a talent contest. He’ll try to find out if any of the young cricket bowlers in India are able to throw a fastball somewhat accurately and around or over 90 MPH.
Given that the film follows two of these young prospects, Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma), you’ll get no prizes for guessing who winds up winning the competition. That’s only part of the movie, though. The deal is that the winner — or, winners, as it turns out — are to be brought to America in an attempt to teach them to play baseball. This is what we do for most of the film, and this is when the film begins to really drag.
See, when we’re touring around India, watching individual tryouts, it’s lighthearted, funny — Alan Arkin shows up as a baseball scout and gets the most laughs — and at least marginally dramatic, even though you know that the only people with a chance of winning are the two that the film characterizes. But after we move to America, we get this weird dysfunctional family thing, far more forced drama, and we learn how poorly written these characters are. They’re still new when we’re in India; once we’re with them for longer, we find out there’s nothing to them.
It’s a feel-good story, one from the people who brought us Invincible and Miracle — so claims the poster, at least. These are all incredibly shallow movies that are predictable from start to finish and offer no real insight into the true story except for what you could already read on the internet. The real truth is probably darker and not fit for a Disney movie. It would also probably make for a more interesting story. But we don’t get that here.
For example, it would be nice to see some struggles — genuine struggles, not comedic ones that you know the characters will overcome. Everything is so wishy-washy and easy for the people in the movie. I find it impossible to become invested in a film like this one. I keep thinking “oh, they’ll get through it,” and that line of thinking never fails. All attempts at suspense are dispelled. It’s predictable and that adds to it feeling fake. All conflicts are easily resolved and all trials and tribulations are overcome with relative simplicity.
I don’t know. It feels fake. It feels predetermined. Knowing the real story doesn’t help, but you and I have both seen these type of movies before, and that’s a problem even if you’ve never heard of the people involved. These films cater to a very specific brand of person. This type of person doesn’t want conflict, doesn’t want real drama, and wants to see everything work out in the end. Like the film has been billed as, it’s a “feel-good” film. Its primary goal is to make you, well, feel good.
Does it accomplish that goal? Not for me. It’s impossible to feel good when it comes across as false and manipulated. It’s not particularly inspirational, either. It just exists, shows a surface-level reading of a real story, and then leaves before it has to reveal that neither Dinesh or Rinku have even made it to the MLB level of professional baseball, and one of the two has quit altogether. Okay, the film does tell you these things, but only in text right before the credits and spun in the most positive way possible. Dramatizing it would be too upsetting, I suppose.
Jon Hamm is a likable actor and he’s charming — but nothing else — in this role. Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma are believable as Indian teenagers, probably because they’re not far removed from being Indian teenagers. Lake Bell is in the movie as a love interest whose part in the story is just another example of another unnecessary and forced love story. Alan Arkin is funny as a grumpy old baseball scout.
Million Dollar Arm is a “feel-good” movie if you can look past how easy everything in its story is, how predictable it is from start to finish, how poorly written its characters are, and how it plays out like it was made by people who read the real-world story on Wikipedia and decided to film exactly that. It doesn’t feel real. It comes across like something that you’d show to preschoolers because showing them anything else might scare them too much. Is that insulting? If it is, you’re the audience for this movie.