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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Million Dollar Arm 2014 * * * Stars

Million Dollar ArmDirector: Craig Gillespie
Year: 2014
Rated PG
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Lake Bell

If Ron Shelton directed a sports themed version of Crocodile Dundee (which includes the fish out of water element) coupled with a plot similar to Jerry Maguire, well you'd probably get 2014's Million Dollar Arm. Starring Mad Men's Jon Hamm, based on a true story (not entirely true I'm sure), and written by Win Win's Tom McCarthy, this Disney theme vehicle doesn't seem as sugar coated, saturated, manipulated, or predictable as most sports movies coming from its long running studio (examples would be Remember the Titans and the badly acted, Invincible). No this is a solid character study of Jon Hamm's J. B. Bernstein. As a down and out sports agent, he is easily agitated, cold, reserved, uptight, and downright ornery. He's an egg about to crack. But as the film progresses, you realize that Bernstein seems to be on a personal journey to become a better person not to mention a more feeling human being. Hamm, with his definitive smirk and buried five o'clock shadow, brings a lot of charisma to the role. I've never met a sports agent (only seen them on TV) nor do I know the exact way they talk, walk, and act. I do know this, Hamm gives a superb, heartfelt performance. There is no doubt in my mind that he can succeed as a stripped down lead actor.

Directed by Australian native Craig Gillespie and shot in India, Georgia, and Los Angeles, Million Dollar Arm opens up with independent sports agent J. B. Bernstein (Hamm) pitching the idea of the benefits of being managed by his company (he does it twice, once to himself as practice, then to a famous NFL linebacker). Popo (played by real life football god Rey Maualuga) as NFL royalty, wants a million dollar signing bonus right up front. Here's the problem: Bernstein and his other colleagues (one of which is Aash played by Aasif Mandvi and I couldn't figure out what exactly he did for said company) don't have any money, haven't signed any clients in forever, and seem on the brink of losing their job office space. The solution: go to India, find some fresh new baseball prospects (basically find cricket players and develop them as major league pitchers), and sign them to big moneymaking contracts. During the film's most pivotal moments, Hamm's Bernstein develops a relationship with two young boys (lightning rod arms in the form of actors Suraj Sharma and newcomer Madhur Mittal), starts a romance with his live in tenant (the likable Lake Bell), and as mentioned earlier, finds his center as a human being who before the events started, didn't have any kind of family, camaraderie, or just someone to really lean on. That being said, Million Dollar Arm's strength inevitably lies in its ability to be swift and breezy fun. Its tone harks back to an old school sports film like The Bad News Bears. And its behind the scenes topography feels akin to a less calculated version of Moneyball.

If this spring release has any overall flaws, I would say they would have to do with the romantic interludes between the Hamm and Bell characters. Maybe they are meant for each other maybe they're not. But the whole plot element of them getting together seems forced, not only by the writers but by the stars, the co-stars, and the whole set design (they live in the same house pretty much, how can it not). As for overall logic, "Arm" slips a bit when it asks the audience to believe that although Hamm's character doesn't have money or clients, he still is able to fly to India (that's about $2000 round trip), hire a scout (Alan Arkin playing well, Alan Arkin), have endless supplies for a tryout, hire two assistants, and pay his winning pitching prospects over $100,000 dollars. I know he is being financed by a rich dude (businessman Chang played by Tzi Ma) but how much is the question. Do you really think that a smart, powerful baseball owner would ever put this much trust in a sort of has been schlep like Bernstein?

Anyway, despite an ending that seems totally lifted from 2012's Trouble with the Curve, this Disney produced release still gets my full fledged recommendation. It's edited at a lightning quick pace with a kind of tight, straightforward method of storytelling. A lot of what's on screen is familiar stuff. However, like most sports movies, the feel good element is key and Million Dollar Arm's feels as if it's genuine or sort of earned if you will. Bottom line: with a level of predictability that's not overly predictable and a proof button assuring us that Jon Hamm is capable of holding the lead in a feature length film, Memorial Day weekend is the perfect time to check out something like Million Dollar Arm. It's entertainment that is worth every "dollar" (ha ha).

Written by Jesse Burleson

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