A true story neatly re-shaped by the Disney mill, “Million Dollar Arm” gathers together a collection of reliable sports-movie chestnuts with a bit of “Moneyball”-style backroom negotiating for grit. The exotic touch here is a scenic trip to India, where desperate agent JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm) treks to find a couple of baseball prospects in a country that doesn’t play the sport.
It’s a gimmick: JB’s staging the search for a reality-TV competition, and he’s convinced a backer that this stunt might have the benefit of attracting a billion new baseball fans from the subcontinent. The trip takes up the midsection of the picture, and is followed by JB’s attempt to get a USC coach (Bill Paxton) to turn these raw talents into pitchers.
There must also be romance, and it comes as workaholic JB pauses long enough in his conquest of cheerleader types to notice the plain-but-spunky doctor who lives in his guest house. This being Hollywood, “plain” is embodied by bodacious Lake Bell.
“Million Dollar Arm” is directed by Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and scripted by Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor”), both of whom appear to be punching below their weight, to mix sports metaphors. There are far too many cute gags about how naïve the contest winners are, despite the best efforts of Suraj Sharma (the kid from “Life of Pi”) and Madhur Mittal.
And casting Alan Arkin as a sourpuss old-school baseball scout (he doesn’t have to watch the recruits pitch, he can judge talent by the sound of the ball hitting the mitt) is so lazy, Arkin could be played by his own hologram. The film’s got the soft edges and invisible expertise of a product newly rolled out of the factory.
Devotees of “Mad Men” may find some fascination in watching Hamm stretch out in a leading-man role that actually has a pleasant, conventional arc. The actor has sustained his masterpiece of a performance as Don Draper on “Mad Men” so long that it comes as a shock to see self-centered, grim-faced JB loosen up and break out into a smile.
He finds happiness in the end by learning and growing, don’t you know. That should be an agreeable sight — hey look, a Jon Hamm character can redeem himself — but if you’re a longtime “Mad Men” follower, you may also find it absolutely unnerving.
“Million Dollar Arm”
A selfish baseball agent (Jon Hamm) goes to India to discover some raw talent and get publicity in the bargain. A formula Disney movie, although the movie’s pleasant enough and Jon Hamm is quite good outside his “Mad Men” character. Lake Bell co-stars.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Opens: Friday at Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Edomds Theater, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Olympic Theatre, Stanwood Cinemas, Oak Tree, Sundance Cinemas Seattle, Thorton Place Stadium, Woodinville, Blue Fox Drive-In, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor Plaza.