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For the first half an hour, Million Dollar Arm is as infuriating as it gets. Only because this is as racist and cliched as it can get. Mr. J. B. Bernstein sort of does what Jerry Maguire did, except he's in a financial crunch. He sees Susan Boyle's I Dreamed A Dream performance and then sees Zaheer Khan bowl. How else could anyone get the idea of excavating untapped talent from a third-world country!
I have to admit I knew nothing of The Million Dollar Arm reality show or about Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel before this film. Take that for first world ignorance, America! I digress.
Or not. When J.B. heads to India he encounters a bunch of cliches. Let me recount them for you:
India is always dirty
India is always hot
There is always traffic in India
People honk all the time
Indian food is bad for the stomach
The Indian head bob
Indians don't know how to use escalators
Indians don't know how to use elevators
Everybody in India watches and loves cricket
There might be more, which I didn't have time to jot down because I was busy showing the Indian middle finger. Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which I think is an absolute cracker of a film, was hated in India for its racism. If that was racist, you ain't seen nothin' yet. The only reason why this film won't be under attack is because it won't win the Oscar for Best Picture. Even the best of films are prone to unwarranted backlash when you win the mythical big prize.
The racism and cliches aside, it is the actors that make the film. Suraj Sharma from Life of Pi (2012) and Madhur Mittal from Slumdog Millionaire play Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, respectively. The Million dollar arms who went on to becomes professional American baseball players. As soon as these two actors arrive, the film becomes an underdog juggernaut. Jon Hamm, who is so ridiculously good-looking it's almost unfair, has staked his claim on the good guy with grey shades after Mad Men. He doesn't strike a false note. Bill Paxton and Alan Arkin interchangeably play the Mr. Miyagi archetype. Another terrific performance in the film is given by Pitobash Tripathy, who arguably steals the show.
The plot is predictable and you may know exactly what's coming. But when have good films ever been condemned because of it? Slowly, the film wins you over. As the dynamic between Mr. J.B. Sir and the boys keeps evolving. As J.B.'s tenant Brenda played by Lake Bell enters this dynamic and effortlessly becomes a part of it. What I loved the most about the film is how it isn't afraid to ask J.B. whether he sees the boys as investments or human beings. There is also a hilarious scene where J.B.'s racism is questioned after they discover which sport Rinku and Dinesh hate. Craig Gillespie (the director of Lars and the Real Girl and Fright Night) brings out the charm and pathos in Thomas McCarhy's screenplay.
While I don't understand the game, it has been responsible for some of the most wonderful films. Moneyball (2011), Bull Durham (1989), Bad News Bears (1976), The Natural (1984) and one of my all-time favorites - Field of Dreams (1989) and The Sandlot (1993). The characters in the film watch The Pride of the Yankees (1942), which contains one of Gary Cooper's best performances. Disney has also been behind some rousing sports films like Miracle (2004), Invincible (2006) and the baseball film - The Rookie (2002). These Disney films may not be as great as the ones mentioned before but they are perfectly delightful.
Sometimes you don't need a film to provoke you to think or go out and change the world. Sometimes you watch them just to be inspired. Just to feel good about yourself and the potential we all have to do what we love. Million Dollar Arm captures just that. I can't ask you to ignore the racism in the film or the narrow lens through which the west sees India. Although, I can you ask you sift through it and discover a film that shows how the differences between cultures become a bridge for the similarities between humanity.
At its core, Million Dollar Arm is a crowd-pleaser with a lot of heart and Disney-ness. The actors prevent the film from going into the sentimental territory and embrace the formulas to give us some good-old inspirational entertainment.