You can see the stuff "Million Dollar Arm" throws at you from miles away, but that doesn't stop this baseball movie from being genially enjoyable. An example of the pleasant things that can happen when a better class of people work on Disney family films, it makes touching all the bases feel like fun.
Based on a true story so improbable you might not believe it at all except for the reality footage shown at the end, "Million Dollar Arm" is built around the charismatic presence of Jon Hamm, "Mad Men's" Don Draper, but its off-screen strengths include two people who are not household words, screenwriter Tom McCarthy and director Craig Gillespie.
McCarthy, whose character-driven writing credits include "The Station Agent" and "Win Win," two fine films he also directed himself, and Gillespie, best known for Ryan Gosling's underappreciated "Lars and the Real Girl," combine to give the film a spirit that is amusing and warm-hearted without being excessively cloying.
"Million Dollar Arm's" focus is on J.B. Bernstein (Hamm), a sports agent who used to toil for the soul-destroying Procorp (he calls it "the Death Star") but is now working with Indian American good friend Ash ("The Daily Show's" Aasif Mandvi) in his own small firm.
The only trouble is, said firm is not doing so well, and efforts to sign a self-absorbed pro linebacker (former USC player Rey Maualuga) keep hitting snags. Then Bernstein ("desperate men try desperate things") gets a brainstorm.
Riffing off his partner's childhood memories of watching cricket, Bernstein determines to go to India, find capable young cricketers through talent contests, bring them to the U.S. and turn them into ace major league hurlers. "A billion people play this game" he enthuses. "That's a billion new fans."
Unmarried because of his penchant for dating supermodels, Bernstein turns to Brenda, the medical student who rents his guest house, to watch over things while he is gone. Engagingly played by Lake Bell (who worked with Hamm on "Children's Hospital" back in the day), Brenda is attractive, funny and smart, but, given the demands of this kind of story and Bernstein's supermodel predilections, the agent is initially blind to her charms.
"Million Dollar Arm" spends a chunk of its time in India, vividly photographed by Gyula Pados to an A.R. Rahman soundtrack, and its scenes of the crowds and competition give the film a bit of a "Slumdog Millionaire" flavor.
Much more familiar is Ray Poitevint, the cranky old major league scout Bernstein hires to help him figure out who's got talent. As played by the always amusing Alan Arkin, Poitevint is so savvy he can tell how fast a prospect is pitching by the sound the ball makes hitting the catcher's glove.
Bernstein and company come up with two players, Rinku ("Life of Pi's" Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), and bring them back to L.A., where the more serious part of the film begins. Never having so much as seen a major league game, the guys have to learn to play, which is where USC coach Tom House (Bill Paxton) comes in. Helped by enthusiastic translator Amit (Pitobash), the guys also have to learn about all the things, ranging from elevators to pizza, they have never seen in rural India.
Because this is a Disney family film after all, it's not just the young ballplayers who will be learning a thing or two. Self-centered, supermodel-dating (is there any family film sin greater than that?), J.B. will learn some stuff as well.
Used to putting the deal before everything else, J.B. will come to understand, with a little help from Brenda, that he has a personal responsibility to the young men he brought over from India and ended up installing in his own house. He has to pay more attention to these prospects as people if he wants them to perform well as athletes.
While this sounds rather gee whiz, as written by McCarthy, directed by Gillespie and performed by a strong cast, "Million Dollar Arm" doesn't push. Especially effective is star Hamm, who displays an easy charm and nice comic instincts in a role that fits him like a broken-in glove. Watching someone become more of an adult is rarely painless, but "Million Dollar Arm" makes the lessons go down easy.
'Million Dollar Arm'
MPAA rating: PG for mild language and some suggestive content
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times