The following review contains spoilers. But it’s a Disney film, which means the outcome is pretty much a foregone conclusion, anyway.
On the face of it—and, okay, in a few substantial ways, too—Million Dollar Arm is just a charming and harmless film about JB (Jon Hamm), a down-on-his-luck sports agent who decides to mount a giant publicity stunt to find a couple of Indian cricket players who can pitch in the majors. Pegging India as an untapped market worth billions, he secures a wealthy backer, travels to India, and sets up a reality TV-style game show to search for talent. Turns out, the two naïve young men he brings back to the States (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal) don’t even play cricket—they just happen to have strong arms. He takes them to his house and, over the course of the film, comes to realize that he’s been exploiting these boys and learns to care for them as a father figure.
So far so good. And there’s some cute business along the way, with Alan Arkin as a jaded talent scout who can tell if a pitcher has “juice” just by listening to the pop of the ball in the glove. Lake Bell is too good to play Brenda, the generic love interest who helps save our hero from his own shallowness, but she’s always a welcome presence. And to the film’s credit, JB’s partner (Aasif Mandvi) is also Indian, but so fully assimilated into American culture, he knows as much about Indian customs as JB does.
But I was skeptical when I saw that Disney was trumpeting this film as “based on a true story.” I’m a pretty big baseball fan. If there were a couple of Indian kids in the majors—or even the minors—I feel like I would’ve heard of them. The truth is that the boys in the film do eventually get signed to a minor league contract—and neither pans out. At the end of the film, we are told that they’re both baseball coaches in India, with undefeated seasons. (This seems a lot less impressive when you realize that baseball is barely even played over there.) But that’s okay, right? Not every inspirational film has to have a totally happy ending. But whose film is this really? Ultimately, Million Dollar Arm is about the journey of JB—yep, another white guy becoming a better person based on his interaction with people of color. Hooray! (In some ways, Jon Hamm, playing a Disney-lite version of Don Draper, was particularly annoying casting. It's not like Hamm can help the fact that he is essentially white male privilege incarnate, but it adds to my discomfort with the film.)
Million Dollar Arm is certainly respectful of Indian culture—the boys pray and they’re completely devoted to their country and families. But I couldn’t help but to think this was a case of form imitating content, that Disney itself was looking to exploit the same billion dollar market that JB was. As stories go, the two Indian boys who almost made it to the majors is good enough, certainly not remarkable. But—fingers crossed!—it should do boffo business in India.