by NEVIL GIBSON
Only a handful of sports-themed Hollywood productions break through the barrier that Americans’ favourite codes do not have universal appeal.

Jon Hamm, Madhur Mittal, Suraj Sharma and Pitobash star in a scene from the movie Million Dollar Arm. (CNS photo-Disney)

Baseball, gridiron football and basketball are minority sports in most countries, so it is
always a financial gamble in the global movie business to punt on a big budget production.
However, Million Dollar Arm (Disney) goes some way to alleviating this by mixing
baseball with cricket in a based-on-fact story that resembles a mashup of Slumdog Millionaire
and Jerry Maguire.
Like the Brad Pitt character in Jerry Maguire (or Tom Cruise in Moneyball), sports agent
“JB” Bernstein (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) needs to turn his languishing business around.
His business associate is an Indian, and it’s not long before he points out that in a
nation of millions of cricketers there must be some that could become champion baseball
pitchers in the American National League.
JB is dubious after watching a few games: “It looks like an insane asylum opened up and all the inmates were allowed to start their own sport,” he says. But he also watches some TV talent shows, including one that made Susan Boyle famous.
It provides the inspiration and, before long, he has a rich Chinese investor to pay for
staging an X-Factor-type show show around India.
This gives the filmmakers the opportunity for some spectacular backdrops, including,
of course, the Taj Mahal, as they cover the subcontinent.
Eventually, JB’s team of talent spotters find two pitchers whose accuracy and speed is
unmatched.
They are also played by familiar faces: Madhur Mittal, from Slumdog Millionaire, and
Suraj Sharma, the hero in Life of Pi.
Along with a would-be coach and translator (Bollywood star Pitobash), they are
plucked from their rural villages and sent to Los Angeles.
The culture shock initially provides some fish-out-of-water humour, but things soon
become bleak. The homesick Indians lose their confidence and the Chinese investor is
pressing for results.
Showing a callous regard for his self-interest, JB refuses to recognise where he
is going wrong, despite plenty of advice from an old baseball scout (Alan Arkin) and
his hired expert coach (Bill Paxton).
The casting of Hamm is a gamble that pays off. As a business operator interested only in the outcome, Don Draper is never far away either in lifestyle or his treatment of women. (Lake Bell plays his tenant in a literal doctor-next-door role as a reminder that life has better
choices.)
This is a Disney film, with an uplifting climax, so JB is eventually transformed from the heartless Draper to something resembling a nice-guy hero.
This may sound formulaic, but it isn’t. The script (Thomas McCarthy, who wrote The Visitor) has several layers and the direction by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) is better than the material might suggest.
Like other sports films, this could have been a hard-hitting exposé of flawed characters
and a ruthless business.
But Disney is not that kind of studio. This is a crowd pleaser and it will survive its
shortcomings.
Rating: Parental guidance (coarse language); 124 minutes.

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