When I was a youngster, I dreamed about being a baseball pitcher for the New York Yankees. I practiced assiduously at Wingate Field in Brooklyn for several years, despite the fact that my fastball was slow and I had no curve ball that actually curved. That flashed through my mind as I watched the movie, MILLION DOLLAR ARM, at the Academy theater in Hollywood on Saturday. It starred the talented Jon Hamm in what was billed in front as 'Based on a true story,' although the premise was so kooky that I doubted it until the end credits and we saw lots of pictures of the real participants. Imagine this: a formerly-very successful sports agent, J.B. Bernstein, (who once repped pro football's Barry Sanders and the now-infamous Barry Bonds), with a big house in Marina del Rey and a flashy sports car, has fallen on hard times when he went out on his own with an Indian-born family guy as his partner. They have been counting on signing a huge, tattooed football linebacker star, Popo (played by former USC player Rey Maualuga), who suddenly demands a million-dollar signing bonus. Of course that's not possible, so they are really at wit's end. We see the Indian guy watching a cricket match in India and he casually mentions that a billion people in India and around the world watch cricket regularly. Hamm/Bernstein suddenly listens up: he flips the channel between cricket and watching Susan Boyle's first appearance on Britain's Got Talent. What if they had a contest throughout India for a cricket player who could throw a baseball hard enough to pitch in the U.S. major leagues? There would be an audience of a billion people who might want to watch this pitcher. Like I said, a kooky premise....but these guys - in the movie and in real life - pulled it off. Bernstein and partner Vasudevan (Aasil Mandvi, whom I recognized from Jon Stewart's 'The Daily Show") get a wealthy Chinese guy, Will Chang, with baseball connections to finance their crazy adventure for one year, promising him they will find an athlete who can pitch in the big leagues. They go to a renowned USC baseball pitching coach, played by Bill Paxton, and get him to agree to take their 'find' and try to turn him into a professional pitcher. They enlist a retired baseball scout, Alan Arkin, to come to India with them and help them select the right candidates. Arkin is a sleepy, sarcastic and utterly beguiling guy who startles them by being able to tell the speed of a pitch by the sound it makes when hitting the catcher's glove. (Editor's note: I produced a film in the early '80s in San Francisco starring Alan Arkin and Carol Burnett called "Chu Chu and the Philly Flash." Carol played Chu Chu, a one-woman band who, wearing all sorts of musical instruments on her body, performs for the tourists at the wharf, while Arkin plays the Philly Flash, a former baseball pitcher who had one inning in the major leagues...and flubbed it in an embarrassing way.)
I once spent three weeks in India in the early sixties, scouting a potential Cinerama movie about the love story behind the building of the Taj Mahal. It was impossible for us to get around the corruption of the local and national officials, and we ended up not making it. I swore to myself that I wouldn't return to this blazing, colorful, odiferous, exciting country. But in this film I returned there in full force. It was incredible what the filmmakers accomplished in their journey to India, seen in intense and interesting detail. J.B. arrives in Mumbai at 2:30 am and finds the airport a hotbed of 'chaos'. The traffic is unbelievable, even worse than L.A. at sunset. They set up scouting locations throughout the country at high schools and colleges, traveled with a batting cage, and had kids everywhere give out leaflets about "the Million Dollar Arm" contest...whereby one or several contestants could win a big monetary prize and then come to America for a shot at the million dollar prize. (To win that, they had to throw consecutive pitches of 90 miles an hour or over, still not done). As I said, I have never seen a foreign country depicted in a film with the truthfulness seen here (although "Slumdog Millionaire" came close.) As Bernstein's Indian aide tells him, "Don't worry, my friend, it will be done. Perhaps not tomorrow.....but eventually."
After a long, harrowing journey throughout the country seeing 38,000 candidates, they assemble a handful of potential winners. We meet two of them who are completely different types -but both at 18 can throw with a speed exceeding 80 miles per hour...and we have our winners. Singh wins the top $100,000 prize for pitching at 88 miles an hour. They bid their families a fond, heartfelt goodbye, and the two nice guys...who in real life lived 40 miles apart and had never been outside of their little villages and also never even held a baseball...are off to America and the intense coaching sessions. We see the impatient, thoughtless side of Hamm's character.....intense for the business deal but of no concern about the lives involved. All of this is commented upon by Brenda, a young female medical student renting his guest house (played by Lake Bell. I don't recall seeing her before, but my viewing companion, Penny McTaggart, tells me she has done many independent films.) He has been dating famous flashy models all his adult life and at first doesn't see the true beauty of this woman, who begins to play a more vital role in his life and that of the two Indian boys. (And the real J.B. married his Brenda just the way it is depicted in the film.)
We see the two young Indian guys striving....and failing....to achieve major league status in front of the major league scouts...as coach Tom/Bill Paxton (a lovely performance, very understated and calm, such a fine actor) warns Hamm that they need more time to polish their pitching skills...and that he must spend more time cossetting and encouraging them, something which Brenda is doing alone. They move into Hamm's house, and his transition is beginning. Little by little, we see Hamm come to some realization about his career, his values, and his growing love for the feisty Brenda. Scout Arkin comes back into play here and saves the day by persuading the Pittsburgh Pirates scout to come to a second chance session....and we see the boys blazing away. The film ends with scenes of the real two guys being signed by the major league team only 13 months after picking up a baseball for the first time in their lives.. By the way, there is a wonderful performance by a small Indian guy, Amit (the Bollywood actor Pitobush), who speaks fluent English and has been their interpreter since they left for India. He grows into his scouting ambition and ends on a nice note back in India coaching....baseball. The Million Dollar Arm contest is now in its third season as a reality TV show and is a big success on TV and in India. It was the first season which was taken by screenwriter Tom McCarthy and assembled into this fine Disney feature. Tom already had a fan in me from previous films, The Visitor, Win-Win - Paul Giamatti as the wrestling coach - and The Station Agent - Peter Dinklage superb in this).
The New York Times critic complained that the film did not dig deep enough into the characters and the details....but I think that is sheer hogwash. Yes, it is a Disney feature, so the sexual content is very muted. Hamm spends a night at Brenda's cottage and the Indian boys hoot and cheer at him, but that's it. Now about the two actors who play the real-life 18-year old cricket guys, Rinku Singh (played by Suraj Sharma, from the wonderful "Life of Pi") and Dinesh Patel (played by Madhur Mittal, late of Slumdog). They were not cricket players but, rather, javelin throwers from northern Uttar Pradesh. We see the actors/pitchers come to Los Angeles and begin to train with USC pitching coach Tom House (a real guy played by Paxton). Within 13 months of Rinku stepping on U.S. soil, he actually won a game as a relief pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates! Remember when I said that I wanted to pitch for the Yankees? Well, no matter how hard I could have tried, I never would do what these two young men accomplished. Incredible.
The film has already opened in India and I would love to know the reaction to it there. My guess is that it is a huge, huge event. I read that there are half-a-billion kids in India in these villages who now may be aware of the possibilities of the outside world.
This is so much more than a sports movie. It is an inspiring, moving and often humorous look at the real life of another culture as compared to our own. Hamm proves to me that he is much more than the Don Draper "Mad Men" guy...he is an authentic movie star, and this role will be the start of many more exciting portrayals for him. He said in an interview that he is an enormous baseball fan but had never heard this story before. He added, "I love the idea of thinking outside of the box." (me too, Jon.) I must pay tribute to the director, Craig Gillespie (Ryan Gosling's "Lars and the Real Girl"), who did a monumental job guiding this intricate PG production. The veteran Joe Roth was one of several producers, with Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, all to be applauded. Yes, this is a really sophisticated warm family drama-comedy, and I encourage you to gather family and/or friends to visit the ballpark/theater. Strike three.
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