'Million Dollar Arm' keeps the audience engaged despite its predictability

'Million Dollar Arm' stars Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein, a sports agent who decides to recruit Indian cricket bowlers for Major League baseball. 

By , Film critic

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    'Million Dollar Arm' stars Jon Hamm (r.) and Lake Bell (l.).
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Predictable isn’t the worst thing a movie can be. Predictable can be comforting. What it can’t be is boring. “Million Dollar Arm,” based on true events, did a fairly good job of keeping me engaged even though I knew exactly where it was going every step of the way.

It’s about J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), an L.A. sports agent who, after making a fortune with a high-powered agency, is struggling on his own. Then he has a brainstorm: Recruit the best cricket bowlers (i.e., pitchers) from India and bring them into Major League baseball. He organizes the “Million Dollar Arm” competition and travels the continent, from Bangalore to Mumbai, looking for talent. Accompanying him is a retired baseball scout played by Alan Arkin, who can make even narcolepsy seem funny.

J.B. comes up with two candidates, Rinku (Suraj Sharma, from “Life of Pi”) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, from “Slumdog Millionaire," a movie this one often implicitly references). He flies them back to Los Angeles, where they end up camping out in his fancy house, and puts them together with a USC baseball coach (played by the great Bill Paxton). Can they quickly develop into big-league material?

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Even without resorting to Google, you will have no trouble figuring out the answer to that one. Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Tom McCarthy crowd the India scenes with exotic bustle, but it’s all good-natured; I never felt as if the filmmakers were being Hollywood colonialists. In the L.A. scenes, they mostly dispense with the usual starry-eyed stranger-in-a-strange-land stuff in favor of a more melancholic tone. These guys are just kids, and far from home.

Hamm gives an adept performance. (As J.B.’s wisecracking tenant, Lake Bell matches him.) It might have been better, though, if Hamm had brought out a bit more of J.B.’s self-serving sharkiness. This movie is altogether too nice. I prefer sports movies with more sass and snap, like the films Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham”) used to make, or even parts of “Moneyball.” “Million Dollar Arm” is enjoyable enough, but it’s onto a bigger subject than it knows what to do with: the money-grubbing globalization of American sports. Grade: B- (Rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content)

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