One of the most frustrating things for a movie critic is to see a movie and recognize that it could be really, really good if they had just changed one little thing.
In this case, that thing is having less of the main character.
Sports agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm) is at the end of his rope. Things haven’t been quite as profitable for him since he struck out on his own, and he and his partner, Aash (Asif Mandvi) are about to lose it all if they can’t sign some profitable new talent soon. Then, flipping channels between Susan Boyle and a cricket game, JB strikes upon an idea: find new baseball talent in the untapped market of India.
With backing from a stern and demanding businessman, Chang (Tzi Ma), and help from a retired talent scout, Ray (Alan Arkin), JB heads to Mumbai to begin a nationwide contest to find athletes who could be turned into baseball players.
After a rocky start — things in India don’t move exactly how they do in the U.S. — the team manages to find two prospects: Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), neither of whom are actually cricket players. Along with Amit (Pitobash), an enthusiastic baseball fan and translator, the team heads back to Los Angeles to get the boys in shape for a major league tryout.
Despite the expertise of pitching trainer Tom House (Bill Paxton), and guidance of JB’s tenant, Brenda (Lake Bell), the boys don’t seem to be picking up the sport as fast as Chang demands. JB’s constant absence as he tries to woo a moneymaking linebacker, Popo (Rey Maualuga), doesn’t help either, and the highly improbable task of taking a couple of kids from the sticks of India and turning them into pro baseball players starts to look nigh impossible.
There were some really neat things about this movie. It’s a great story, and it’s based on true events. Although it’s a sports story, the ballfield plays only a small supporting role to the main themes of Thinking Outside The Box and Finding Your Family Away From Home.
There’s a lot to love in the Indian kids — Amit, who is almost manically enthralled with baseball and the American experience; Dinesh, who takes the opportunity to train and try out for major league baseball seriously but worries about his family and doubts his own abilities; and Rinku, who is best at remembering that the point of any game is to have fun. Brenda is a welcome presence, too, who grounds the group and helps to even out many of JB’s more jerky tendencies.
Because seriously, JB is such a jerk. Like, jerk to colossal proportions. There is an arc to his character, wherein he starts out as a super jerk and ends up as mostly not a jerk, but he was just such a disagreeable presence for much of the movie.
A coworker pointed out that when JB acts like a jerk, things don’t work out for him, and when he acts like a decent human being, good things happen. This is true, and, especially where this is a Disney movie, the lesson on morality and kindness is not unexpected.
But it wasn’t exactly subtle, either. Near the end, when he finally realized what a drag he’s been, I swear I heard Boris Karloff’s disembodied voice saying, “…the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day.”
I’m not saying that Jon Hamm’s character was the biggest jerk I’ve ever seen, but he may be one of the biggest ones I’ve ever been asked to root for, and I feel like that made the movie seem way longer than around two hours. I don’t know how the real JB Bernstein feels about the portrayal, but I’d be a little insulted. Though, yes, JB does have positive attributes and does become a better person by the end. The very end.
Still, there are good things about “Million Dollar Arm,” and it is uplifting and relatively inoffensive. But it could have been better with a little less JB.