Ron Phillips, Disney Enterprises
Baseball movies are a dime a dozen — heck, great baseball movies are practically a dime a dozen. There’s something about the sport that seems to catch the interest of filmmakers.
“The Pride of the Yankees,” “Field of Dreams,” “The Natural,” “The Sandlot,” “A League of Their Own,” “The Rookie” (another Disney one) and “Moneyball” are just a few of the classics involving America’s favorite (and increasingly multicultural) pastime.
Like all of those movies, though, Disney’s latest, the fact-based drama “Million Dollar Arm,” isn’t just about the sport itself, but something more universal. In this case, that “something” is family.
There’s a great scene about halfway through the film where Jon Hamm’s character J.B. Bernstein, a struggling sports agent/wannabe playboy, is forced to bring two young major-league hopefuls he recruited in India (via an “X Factor”-style reality show) to spend the night in his modern, lavishly decorated California bachelor pad.
For all the sleek, high-end technology and designer furniture on display in just his living room, there’s nevertheless a palpable feeling of emptiness, prompting one of them to ask where J.B.’s family is.
This scene contrasts sharply with one earlier in the movie where J.B. is invited into the home of one of the two boys, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma from “Life of Pi”). Out in the middle of nowhere in the Indian countryside, it’s a modest, dirt-floored structure, but one bursting at the seams with smiling, happy people. Rinku’s family members, younger brothers and sisters crowd outside the windows, others perched on top of walls, each trying to catch a glimpse of the American visitor.
Oddly enough for a sports movie, it’s domestic scenes like these where a lot of the real drama unfolds in “Million Dollar Arm” — not on a baseball diamond or pitcher’s mound (although there is enough of that to keep things exciting), but in living rooms, on back porches, in crowded cars and in cheap restaurants.
Although the movie’s hook seems to be the genuinely fascinating true story of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel (the latter played by Madhur Mittel of “Slumdog Millionaire”) — two 18-year-olds who had never even thrown a baseball before but became part of an expensive promotional stunt and (minor spoiler), eventually, major league pitchers — the real heart and soul ends up being J.B.’s transformation from self-centered bachelor to the de facto patriarch of this makeshift family unit. It is composed of himself, the two boys, their Indian chaperone (a scene-stealing performance by Pitobash) and — as the “mother” to J.B.’s “father” — a charismatic med school student named Brenda (the multi-talented Lake Bell).
That’s not to say baseball fans won’t enjoy this movie.
Director Craig Gillespie, who just signed on for another Disney project based on true events (the Coast Guard drama “The Finest Hours”), does an admirable job balancing the two complementary aspects of the story: the somewhat formulaic but still engaging sports movie elements and the no-less-clichéd “superficial guy becomes family man” story.
The result is a film that works better than either one of those things would have by itself, and it should appeal to a wide range of moviegoers thanks to the universal themes about family (in a loose sense) and responsibility over personal desires.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.
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