'Million Dollar Arm' review: Baseball just isn't interesting enough, I guess

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

An amazing story was shoehorned into a feel-good box, and it didn't have to be that way.

The first thing on the screen in Million Dollar Arm is the word "Disney." Other words, and eventually the movie, fade in around it. It could have been a Touchstone picture, but they went the full Disney. If you’re expecting something different, that’s probably your fault.

Hello. I watched Million Dollar Arm so you don't have to. Some disclosures: I'm a better banjo player than a movie critic, and I’m not that good at the banjo. I see about three movies in the theaters every year, and just a handful at home, so I can’t compare this one to Grand Budapest Hotel or Blue is the Warmest Color. This is just a baseball nerd wondering if this is a movie for baseball nerds.

Answer: Probably not. It’s better than Trouble With the Curve, though! That time I bit into a hot calzone and melted my uvula was also better than Trouble With the Curve, so the bar was set low. And Million Dollar Arm just, just barely clears that bar, mostly because it adheres tightly to a proven Disney formula, even though it doesn't execute said formula that well.

The main character is what would happen if you unzipped Don Draper, turned him upside down, and shook out the demons. You can tell Jon Hamm is different in this movie because he opens his eyes wider, and his mouth occasionally does this weird thing where it curls upward to indicate happiness. It’s probably unfair to judge a character by comparing it to the actor’s iconic role, but casting Hamm as an agent wasn't an accident. You don't have to spend time establishing him as a deal-first character with a touch of avarice. You accept it without a lot of prodding Still, Don Draper without the demons is like Billy Hamilton without the speed. Why bother?

I’m going to keep this free of spoilers as much as possible, but the part about "Disney" up there is a spoiler in itself. There’s a problem (Hamm can’t get any clients and is going under) and a love interest (Lake Bell), a manic pixie dream girl who never comes close to passing the Bechdel test and exists only to teach Hamm about life and make him feel better. Hamm comes up with the idea to mine India for talent after flipping back and forth between cricket and Susan Boyle, and it becomes clear if he can't successfully mine India, his business will fail.

There’s a quasi-villain (CHENG!) who finances the Indian talent search, setting it up as a reality show with a $100,000 grand prize. The two young hopefuls (Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma) are found with the help of a gruff, sleepy scout (Alan Arkin). They come to America and learn about baseball with the help of Tom House, who is played by Chet from Weird Science, which is kind of beautiful. There’s a translator brought along for comic relief because he’s small, wacky, and not like us, if you can believe it. There are conflicts and resolutions. There’s a montage. There’s a point where it looks like it’s all for naught. Then things change. By the end, everyone learns a little something.

The baseball parts of the movie weren't offensive, not like Trouble With the Curve. At one point Hamm is spitballing with his partner (Aasif Mandvi) and bemoans that it’s impossible to find and secure new talent. As evidence of this, he notes that the "Red Sox just signed an eight-year-old." That’s the most egregious wait-what line in the movie, though the entire setup is based on the idea that not only will the two pitchers need to throw hard, but they'll need to throw hard in a strike zone the size of an orange crate within the first 10 pitches or so at a tryout, which isn't exactly how it works.

Whatever. It's Hollywood. Suspend your disbelief or don't bother with any of it. I like the one where they drill into the asteroid and blow it up.

The general structure of the movie is slightly offensive, though, and I'll tread lightly here because I'm an even worse social critic than a movie critic. The fish-out-of-water aspect is often played for laughs, which is probably unavoidable in any kind of movie with this kind of theme, but there’s an uncomfortable paternalism to it, with the pitchers portrayed as giggling, pizza-eating teenagers and Hamm as the absentee dad who needs to shape up. When Hamm spends the night at Bell’s house, the kids giggle and ask him if he’s going to marry her and if they kissed. When Hamm is mad at them, he stomps around and literally yells, "Go to bed!" They're just kids, after all.

When the movie is over, they show clips of the film’s real-life inspirations. They're grown-ass men. They're gigantic athletes, the kind of grown-ass men who belong on a baseball field with other grown-ass men. They didn't win the contest because they guessed how many jellybeans were in the jar; they won it because they could throw an orb harder than almost anyone else alive. So what happened between the reality and the giggling-teenager conceit? There wasn't enough gee-whiz in the real story, I guess. It also allowed Don Draper to stomp around and tell Sally to go to bed. It was uncomfortable, at best. There was an uncomfortable dynamic that went beyond an "employer/employee" relationship and into something paternalistic that spoke to how Disney thinks American audiences would respond best to an interaction between a handsome American and two young Indian men in America for the first time, that they need to seem younger and more helpless.

The biggest problem with the movie, though, is that it could have been amazing for baseball nerds.

The biggest problem with the movie, though, is that it could have been amazing for baseball nerds. I was skeptical of the "Million Dollar Arm" idea when it was announced as a talent search, and I was more skeptical of the movie when it was greenlit. Yet, the movie indirectly shows that it’s a story worth telling. Just a few weeks after picking up a baseball for the first time, the young pitchers are shown on a field at USC, surrounded by players who have probably been around the game their entire lives. The two foreign players don’t know how to catch using a mitt or throw the ball to first, yet they're expected to blend in, with natural talent making up for decades of a baseball-free life.

It’s a ridiculous concept, especially if you know just how hard it is for young players to succeed at baseball. Those USC players? In theory, maybe one or two of them will make the majors. Maybe three or four will find any success in the minors. The rest, after being so good at baseball that they can play for one of the top college programs in the country, will never sniff the minors. And you're saying these new guys, who only recently threw a baseball for the first time, can play professionally? Preposterous.

Year W L ERA G IP H BB SO BB9 SO9 SO/W
4 Seasons 10 6 2.99 84 147.1 144 41 126 2.5 7.7 3.07

Yet those are the career numbers from Rinku Singh, one of the main characters. He hasn't pitched since 2012, and he probably won't pitch this year because of Tommy John surgery (of course), but to go from a world completely devoid of baseball to pitching well against Sally League hitters is amazing. The athleticism and aptitude involved must be otherworldly. Singh doing as well as he did, and so quickly, is a movie I want to see. How he actually adjusts to life -- actual bus-jockeying life -- in the low minors, that's a movie I'm desperate to see. That’s the movie baseball nerds would have lapped up.

Instead, the movie is told from Hamm’s perspective for whatever reason, so it becomes about him saving his agency and the Indian players feeling good that they didn't fail him. We’re supposed to relate to Hamm. We all know what it’s like to need more money, and to need to balance our personal lives with our desire to succeed. Or something.

Give him a drinking problem and a festering insecurity under an fatally flawed shell of arrogance, and maybe you have a character worth centering the movie around. Instead, you have boring Don Draper learning life lessons, and the most amazing part — the pitcher actually learning baseball on a crash course — is a footnote. This could have been a baseball story. Instead, it was a human interest story with uninteresting humans.

Still waiting for The Godfather of baseball movies. Still waiting for The Fugitive of baseball movies, actually, which would be an impeccably executed movie that doesn't have to make an AFI list to be a stunning success. This idea had that potential.

Everyone walking out of the movie was pleased, as far as I can tell. The Metacritic score is 55, but the user score is 79. The voters on IMDB were similarly impressed. They felt good. Everyone felt good. It was a feel-good movie.

It just wasn't a very good baseball movie. And it could have been, dang it.

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