May 9, 2014
Jon Hamm, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Lake Bell, Aasif Mandvi, Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin, Darshan Jariwala, Tzi Ma
English with some Hindi
Million Dollar Arm is such a quiet film that it would be easy to under-rate it. Anyone can guess how it will end for the protagonists, yet – unlike most sports films where we already know the central character won that World Cup or breasted that tape at the nth second – this one doesn’t build up an artificial frenzied suspense around the baseball field. What it does is introduce us to this wonderfully gray real-life American sports agent called J.B. Bernstein who plucks two poor boys out of India and takes them to the US to make them Major League Baseball players.
This is a biopic-of-sorts of JB (Jon Hamm) who has been struggling to survive since he started his own business. To save his career, he decides to find baseball’s next big sensation in India, to convert one of the cricket-crazy nation’s bowlers into a baseball pitcher. JB flies off to hold the Million Dollar Arm contest in India. With the help of the crotchety old sports scout Ray (Alan Arkin) and local baseball enthusiast Amit (Pitobash), he finally finds young Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal). From there the film takes us through the boys’ discovery of the US, JB’s opportunistic view of them as “investments”, and his gradual conversion from being a “Class A jerk” as his girlfriend calls him.
A story like this is fertile ground for condescension. This could have been a patronising white-man-saves-little-brown-people saga told in the kind of tone we’ve heard from too many Western journalists in the past year while covering India’s anti-rape protests, Moon Mission and other news developments. With masterful deftness though, director Craig Gillespie and writer Tom McCarthy pull back and hold a mirror to JB each time they’re entering tricky territory, giving us a surprisingly sensitive take on alien cultures, disparities and commonalities, underdogs, unwitting racism and white-man-who-is-saved-from-himself.
JB’s early impression of India is a quick composite of crowded roads, traffic jams, chaos and animals on city streets, but at the hands of DoP Gyula Pados nothing is over-emphasised to exoticise. Slumdog Millionaire’s critics may possibly have objections here too, but to be fair, it is but natural for a foreigner to be struck by these overwhelming aspects of India before they notice glitzy hotels, malls, factories and prosperity. It is to Gillespie’s credit that he presents to us these elements of the Indian reality without caricaturing the country.
We get a brief glimpse of Ray sneering at a goat’s kid on a two-wheeler riding beside his car in Mumbai, and an equally fleeting look at JB’s plush hotel in the city. There’s this and there’s that – fair enough then. A.R. Rahman’s music suffers one jarring moment when he includes some bars from Slumdog’s Ringa ringa in the background score, but for the most part it too is engaging and shorn of clichés.
Where the film falls short is in the depiction of the people at large, which could have been more well-rounded without turning Million Dollar Arm into a documentary on India. For instance, the scene depicting the boys’ wide-eyed wonderment when they enter an elevator for the first time is matter-of-fact without being patronising. Of course poor Indian village boys who’ve never been inside a modern building would be fascinated by lifts. In a world where too many Westerners think those are the only kind of Indians in existence though, it is a glaring flaw not to at least briefly introduce viewers to the other kind of Indians, the ‘people like us’ characters, the ones for whom a lift is not a discovery, the ones who are as exasperated by goats and cows on streets as a foreigner might be shocked, amused and bemused.
Million Dollar Arm scores though with its immaculate casting. Few men can play a slimeball in a suit with as many layers as Hamm, well-known in India for his role in TV’s Mad Men. The actor makes JB a character who is hard to hate even when he’s despicable, the sort of chap about whom you feel you know there’s a good guy lurking around somewhere inside him.
Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi is growing into a handsome young fellow, as is the potentially hunky Madhur Mittal who played the wayward elder brother in Slumdog. Both are spot on in their depiction of youthful confidence that occasionally hits a slump. They are so natural before the camera and so charming, that it becomes easy to imagine why JB’s neighbour Brenda would feel a certain tenderness towards them. Brenda is played by Lake Bell who is familiar to Indian viewers from Boston Legal. Her searingly astute observations about JB make for some of the film’s most well-written moments.
Pitobash as Amit is the one who could have ended up being Million Dollar Arm’s only cliched desi. Instead, this gifted actor holds back some of his innate rusticity and exuberance to give us a winning character. The screenplay wisely allows Amit, Rinku and Dinesh to have most of their conversations in Hindi. This gives the dialogues a natural tone, with the Indians speaking not in the stereotypically sing-song, accented English of The Simpsons’ Apu, but in the kind of English and Hindi that real Indians from their particular background would use.
The remaining roles are all played by talented actors who make their few minutes on screen count, including poor Aasif Mandvi who is saddled with the only badly written part. It seems as though someone forgot that business partners are actually supposed to do something in the business. Mandvi’s Ashu Vasudevan seems to contribute little to JB’s firm.
It needs to be pointed out that the film creates the impression that the Million Dollar Arm contest got a lot more coverage in the Indian national media than it did in reality. It should have also been clarified that baseball is many light years away from getting the “billion new viewers” that JB thought his contest would earn for the game in India. This country is still obsessed with cricket, and baseball is still largely a distant sport.
That being said, it goes without saying that the contest changed the lives of the real Rinku and Dinesh. This film though is the heart-warming story of how they changed the real JB’s life. No doubt JB was on an exploitative, self-serving mission, but the boys were too innocent to get that. No doubt the story is focused on JB and not the boys, which some may even see as its failing. However, by the end of its 122 minutes we get to know Rinku and Dinesh just that little bit more and are left with a cloud of warmth floating around the heart. This is a film that’s small in scale, with no pretensions whatsoever to grandeur. Million Dollar Arm is a pleasant and deliberately under-stated ‘melodrama’, as dramatic and real as real life usually is.
Rating (out of five): ***1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
MPAA Rating (US):
PG (for mild language and some suggestive content)
Release date in the US:
May 16, 2014
Poster courtesy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Million_Dollar_Arm