The traditional (read: boring) review: You're tired of reading them, and I'm tired of writing them. So I'm doing something a little different with this review. Instead of telling you what this movie is, I'm going to tell you what it isn't - and why that makes it stand out.
Still with me? Great. Here, have an extended trailer:
If you didn't have the time to watch that, or you have been hiding out in a bunker and unable to see any of the trailers on TV, then allow me to fill you in.
J.B. Bernstein is a sports agent whose business is about to go belly-up when his last client - and last shot - flakes on him and signs with another agency.
At the end of his rope and swiftly running out of money, J.B. concocts a plan to go to India in order to find the MLB's first Indian pitchers. While things in India are chaotic, and nothing goes according to plan, he eventually finds his two young pitchers and brings them back to the U.S.
Since this is a movie (and every movie needs a story arc), as you can imagine, getting the boys to acclimate to life in Los Angeles - and getting himself to acclimate to suddenly stepping into the role of ready-made dad - turns out to be more of a monumental undertaking than J.B. ever anticipated.
As the Joker once said, and away...we...go.
It's not humorless.
Sports movies seem to fall into one of two categories (Unless it's Rollerball, which belongs to a category all its own, and that category is dumpsterfire): Super-serious and burdened with glorious purpose, or slapsticky shenanigans. [Million Dollar Arm](movie:397703) is neither of those things, and that's a positive.
The thing that struck me - and many of the disgruntled journalist and blogger types who screened it with me last month - was how funny it was. No, you won't be crying from laughter like you might from watching a Seth Rogen movie or a video of a little kid falling down, but there are true moments of levity sprinkled throughout the film, and regularly. Most of these are thanks to Jon Hamm's brilliance at playing off the people around him as the deadpan straight man in J.B. Bernstein.
But the real driving force of the movie is the fish-out-of-water storyline played perfectly by Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal. If you've never seen the former in [Life of Pi](movie:5529) or the latter in Slumdog Millionaire, then watch them for this, because they are fantastically funny, sympathetic characters. That the humor comes naturally and subtly without being overblown is a testament to the brilliance of the young pair. A tip of the hat also goes out to regular Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi, who brings his particular brand of funny to the screen in the role of J.B.'s straight-talking, sarcastic business partner with a chaotic family life.
It's not overly sappy.
Quick. What do you think of when you think of "Disney" + "sports movie"?
That was a trick question. The first thing you should have thought of is The Mighty Ducks, and if you didn't, get. it. together. But the second thing you probably thought of was an incredibly sappy tearjerker of a story with characters so saccharine as to give you a tooth ache, right? Right. But this is not that story.
Hamm is so great at playing a guy we can sympathize with, but there are moments in the film where you kind of feel like slapping him upside the head for being such a selfish jerk. And by "kind of", I mean "absolutely". The blossoming of his character arc happens gradually, and the crucial thing that keeps the story from spinning off into Rudy territory is that even his development and growth stem from originally selfish motives. He's the protagonist, but not the heroic character of the story - that belongs to the boys in his charge. He's simply a guy with flaws, trying his best to do right by the people around him...eventually.
It's not your predictable cast.
J.B. is the lynchpin of the film, but it's the rest of the cast that revolve around him like spokes on a wheel, making the movie go. And the cast is surprising. Lake Bell is utterly brilliant as Linda in her quirky, funny way, acting as both surrogate mother to the boys and J.B.'s moral compass, with his needle gradually, over the course of the movie, starting to point right at her. She's not a vapid knockout. She doesn't need J.B. to save her. She's not a joyless scold. She's simply present in every scene and real in a way the plastic Barbie dolls that are J.B.'s regular romantic partners can never be. That her scenes with Jon Hamm were partial improv lends itself to the realness of their relationship.
Another wonderful surprise is the performance of Indian actor, Pitobash, as J.B.'s eager, earnest sidekick, Amit. He overflows with warmth and enthusiasm in a way that makes you wonder how you could ever not care for him and the other two boys so far away from home. His climactic scene toward the end of the movie was the one scene to move me to tears. My heart broke for him a little, but he's so good in the role that even that was somehow okay.
Bill Paxton, as the boys' coach, Tom House, and Alan Arkin as Ray, J.B.'s surly, mostly-retired talent scout also deserve a world of credit for bringing much to limited screen time. Coach House is Linda's complement, giving J.B. brutal honesty and tough love when he needs them, and showing a compassion for the well-being of the boys that is, through most of the movie, completely lacking in J.B. So does the cantankerous Ray, caustically funny as only Alan Arkin can be, in the role of perhaps the most reluctant baseball scout ever. In fact, none of the characters in the film, save for the three naive Indian boys, are at all impressed with J.B.'s hotshot status, each delivering their own special brand of "get over yourself." It's only when he starts listening that he starts to change.
While Million Dollar Arm can't hope to compete with [Godzilla](movie:45291) at the box office this weekend, which will be appropriately crushing all in its path, it is well worth seeing. The cast is fantastic, with the performances of Sharma and Mittal, Pitobash, and Bell sure to make a mark on American audiences mostly unfamiliar with them. It's a happy-to-be-alive movie that resonates with its realness, and that's awfully hard for a sports movie to do. But Million Dollar Arm does it well and deserves a far better shot than what it will probably face this weekend with the stiff competition. Maybe a double feature? After all, what's more American than a remake and baseball?