Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pitch Imperfect: MILLION DOLLAR ARM


In Million Dollar Arm, Jon Hamm plays a sports agent we first see giving a Don Draper-esque pitch to a potential client who turns him down, a rejection that threatens to take down his company. A brainstorm with his business partner (The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi) leaves him with one last idea to save his failing firm. He wants to travel to India and run a contest to find an amateur cricket player with a throwing arm powerful enough to be brought to America and converted into a pitcher for Major League Baseball. Easier said than done, and it doesn’t sound easy to me.

The movie is built around two culture shocks. First, Hamm’s agent is sweaty and confused during his time in India, befuddled by the cuisine, the way of doing business, and the local help (Bollywood actors Pitobash and Darshan Jariwala). Secondly, his young recruits (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma and Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal) go with the agent to Los Angeles where they’re dazzled and lonely. One of those culture shocks is more interesting than the other. Want to guess which one the movie focuses on?

We start in the world of the sports agent, following him through his company’s shaky financial situation and his no-strings-attached romantic life. Soon, though, he and a cranky retired baseball scout (Alan Arkin, who else?) arrive in India. During the time the movie spends there, the country is either exoticized or made a source of humor. Their local assistants are a study in contrasting stereotypes. One is drolly in favor of bribery to make their search move quickly. The other is eager to please and prone to misunderstanding directions. Told they need to find a pitcher with “juice,” he runs off to get them some juice. If the performers on all sides had less charm or energy, it’d feel offensive.

Soon enough, we meet the two young guys on whom the movie pins its rags-to-a-chance-at-riches plotting. They’re immediately sympathetic and engaging. Consideration is given to their lives in small Indian villages, where life is slow-paced and poor. They have close ties to faith, family, and culture. When they arrive in America, they’re sympathetically presented as small-town kids suddenly thrown into entirely unfamiliar surroundings. Given an opportunity to come to America and try out for a chance to earn millions, they’re nonetheless understandably homesick and discouraged. And yet they are still willing to give it a try.

Theirs is a stronger, more compelling culture shock, and yet we see them filtered through their agent’s viewpoint. He follows a predictable arc in which he’s a hard-charging career-oriented guy who sees his new guests as a project more than people. He needs to soften up and learn to love his makeshift family. We’ve seen that story before. No matter how well Hamm plays the plot points, it’s still obviously lacking compared to the more interesting story happening just outside his perspective. It’s a problem of point of view.

I wanted to know more about the interior lives and daily struggles of the kids. Instead, they make friends, learn baseball, and learn English almost entirely off-screen. Why push aside their training?  You’d think that would be a key point of interest. Besides, the coach helping them is played by the always-welcome Bill Paxton, and every time the film heads to the field, the imagery lights up and the thrill of the game is palpable. And yet we spend far more time watching their agent stumble towards the point at which he’ll realize the error of his ways. To do so he’s given a token love interest (the charming Lake Bell in an impoverished role), who exists here only to be a potential romantic partner and to give him pep talks.  

Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Tom McCarthy are usually better attuned to specificities in their characters. Gillespie has shown a fine eye for community responses to differences, especially in his Lars and the Real Girl. But I’m surprised McCarthy, in particular, ended up with a script with a perspective so out of whack. His The Visitor is a tender portrayal of clashing cultures that finds a bookish professor surprised and ultimately enriched by his entanglement with a couple of immigrants squatting in his apartment. His Win Win is about a troubled teenager taken in by a warm family willing to help him achieve a better life through sports. In other words, McCarthy has done aspects of the story before, but Million Dollar Arm approaches from an angle that feels wrong.

While the characters are for the most part compassionately drawn, and the visual style is glossy up-tempo Disney feel-good uplift, the movie is stubbornly fuzzy with the details and the balance in perspective remains wobbly. The movie is upbeat and well made, but I found the point of view naggingly askew. About halfway through, I started imagining a better version of this movie that started fully immersed in the villages of India, met Sharma and Mittal, got to know them better, and then saw the Americans and America through their eyes. Their characters go through massive changes, leaving their families behind to move across the world to a country where they don’t speak the language, to be taught to play a sport they’ve never seen, and to live at an income level they’d never imagined. That’s quite a shock. Why in the world are they the supporting characters in this story?

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