Million Dollar Arm
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, June 2014
I realise I’m not exactly the target market for this Disney update on Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire, but I was prepared to be charmed – and the Mumbai locations and well-meaning young Indian leads in this based-on-a-true-story might have made the film palatable.
But a word of warning to enlightened parents who fancy opening their children’s eyes to a very different culture, hoping to see a heartwarming tale of talent and opportunity overcoming poverty: Million Dollar Arm is a breathtakingly racist, patronising and clichéd tale which is better used as an object lesson in how not to treat people whose traditions you don’t understand.
The utterly cynical premise is meant to be all good fun: JB (Mad Men’s Jon Hamm) is a failing sports agent who has the brilliant idea to scout for fresh new baseball players in India, “the last untapped market” for a game which, if it became popular on the continent, would secure millions of new fans and corresponding revenue. Heading to Mumbai with a grumpy old super-agent played by rote by Alan Arkin (who can scarcely conceal his disdain for the whole affair), JB sets about “auditioning” local youths in a reality TV show to see whose arm can pitch at 92 miles per hour and win them $1 million.
It could have all the hallmarks of a nice, family story. One of the lads whose future is at stake is played by the delightful Suraj Sharma who wowed in his debut role in Life of Pi and here makes a good fist of it as a boy hauled out of a very basic life in India and thrown into the superficial privilege of the American sporting world. However, Hamm tries to be a bit of a Jerry Maguire but sadly lacks any of Cruise’s charm which might otherwise have endeared the shallow, selfish bore to the film’s audience. JB breezes in like a typical money-oriented Westerner and is openly rude about the “Indian way”. Adding insult to injury, the token Indian characters only reinforce the stereotypes and enable JB’s sneering.
As a backdrop, JB (who initially only dates models – naturally) engages in cringingly banal Skype foreplay with his spirited tenant (Lake Bell) who is the only person in the film to display any sense of propriety. But it’s not a credible enough distraction from the travesty that is Disney’s endorsement of how this detestable American behaves towards the foreigners. Laden with caricatures and thinly veiled insults, even JB’s eventual redemption can’t redeem this dreadful, distinctly unfriendly family film.