[16 May 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Seeing the oppression of others is, of course, very important work. But so is seeing how the systems oppress oneself.”
“We don’t have another play.” Aash (Aasif Mandvi) stands on the street outside JB Bernstein’s (Jon Hamm) LA mansion, their evening of drinking and lamenting and watching cricket on TV done at last. They’re one-time superstar sports agents currently without clients and the lamenting has focused on their most recent disappointment, that is, JB’s failed offer to a famous football player (Rey Maualuga). And so Aash is delivering to expectations of a loyal and good sidekick, reminding his partner that he’s got a family and needs to pay the bills.
Million Dollar Arm delivers to a lot more expectations, being a Disney movie that’s sort of about sports and mostly about its white guy hero’s moral education. Which is to say that JB here looks like you expect him to look, a little hapless and yet determined, left alone, in low angle close-up to underscore that he’s pondering “another play” even as Aash clambers into his cab and heads home to his wife and twins, who will go on to appear as background props during a couple of phone calls.
JB comes up with that play in the next scene, when, still pondering, he watches some more cricket. Yes, he figures, the camera cutting between his suddenly attentive face and the elegant flat screen TV across the room. He’ll go to India and find a couple of cricket bowlers to transform into MLB pitchers. Moreover, he’ll convince the rich guy Chang (Tzi Ma) to back the scheme, turning it into an American Idol-style competition he calls… “Million Dollar Arm.”
It’s a goofy notion, preposterous even, but still, you can see how it might have worked as a movie pitch. Based on the true story of a 2008 reality television show that did indeed end up with the signing of two Indian-born pitchers by the Pittsburgh Pirates, JB’s scheme takes him from his neatly ordered and air conditioned bachelor’s life to the hot, chaotic, and exotic streets of Mumbai. Here, with a pulsing soundtrack by A.R. Rahman and a few instructions by Ray (Alan Arkin), the crotchety, ever-right scout Aash sends with him into the wilderness, JB finds his pitchers, and they in turn will help him find himself.
This is Million Dollar Arm‘s very worst idea, to turn the charismatic players Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) into two Indian versions of the Magical Negro. At first, they appear as a couple of kids with different backgrounds and pitching styles, Rinku devotion to his mother (Lata Shukla) and Dinesh determined to win the contest in order to buy a new truck for his hardworking father (Yashwant Joshi). But once they’re removed from India to Southern California, the two boys are transformed into one emblem, sharing the frame and providing JB with a series of life lessons, as he pursues (again) the possibly-maybe-not-likely available football player and so misses their training as well as the several discerning instruction of the pitching coach he’s hired, Tom (Bill Paxton).
It’s no coincidence that what JB misses concerning Dinesh and Rinku’s development, as pitchers and also young men, becomes the focus of Brenda (Lake Bell). She’s got a bit of an awkward relationship with JB at first, being a medical resident (smart!) who rents his guesthouse, which is to say, who’s witness to his gallivanting with assorted “models” (Aash’s characterization). When, in JB"s absence, Brenda befriends Rinku and Dinesh, she sorts out immediately what they need, namely, a supportive father figure who drives an SUV and watches them practice, rather than a “class A jerk” in a Porsche who drops them off like children at day camp.
Brenda’s insight is hardly news, as you’ve been watching exactly this story unfold for most of the movie. But the movie piles on lesson after lesson, voiced serially by Brenda, Aash, JB, and also by Amit (Pitobash Tripathy), the comic-reliefy translator JB has picked up in Mumbai, owing to the avid baseball fan’s offer to work for free. He may be the movie’s most egregious embodiment of JB’s resilient unself-consciousness. While Million Dollar Arm never pretends to be about racism or exploitation in major league sports and commercial culture, it can’t help but be just that. Yet another sidekick in a movie too full of them, Amit declares his love for the “great sport of baseball” in a moment framed into yet another maxim for the grateful Americans in need of redemption. Unable to see how oppressive “systems” grant them benefits and also ignorance, they appear one by one in reaction shots, beaming and hugging, so very happy to win their game show, again.