There's an inspirational sports drama hidden somewhere inside Disney's Million Dollar Arm. Unfortunately, "white savior" syndrome totally smothers it.
Get ready for the pitch: Million Dollar Arm is Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire—if Jerry Maguire were an attention hog with zero interest in Jamal’s rags-to-hero struggle.
Backed by Disney, Million Dollar Arm is predictably accessible and happy-go-lucky. Directed by the underachieving Craig Gillespie (from Ryan Gosling’s Lars and the Real Girl to the forgettable Fright Night remake), it’s a misguided folly that picks the wrong central character.
Gillespie and Disney's missed opportunity is based on a true story, that of Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, played here by actors Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) and Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi), respectively. In 2008, Dinesh and Rinku won a nationally covered, American Idol-like competition: Million Dollar Arm was a pitchers’ duel engineered to discover India’s first-ever Major League Baseball stars from a crop of cricket players and a few poseurs, namely Dinesh, a blue-collar worker and former field hockey participant, and Rinku, an amateur javelin thrower. The event was the brainchild of American sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a one-time big shot who’d left a big agency to start his own and, after three years of struggle, needed a career-saving miracle.
That’s quite a story, no doubt, and had ESPN strong-armed the rights away from Disney to fund a 30 for 30 documentary about Dinesh and Rinku, it’d make for some truly inspirational and fascinating entertainment. But that didn’t happen. Taking unfortunate cues from the 2009 box office smash The Blind Side, the people behind Million Dollar Arm have refashioned Rinku and Dinesh’s underdog tale into Hollywood cinema’s latest “white savior” movie. You know the type: a well-off Caucasian stumbles across a lesser-privileged minority (or sometimes multiple minorities) who’s talented in some discernible way but unable to do anything with his or her talents, so the Caucasian savior leads he or she to the promised land of third-act retribution and a popcorn-munching applause. It’s the feel-good formula for success that brought Sandra Bullock a Best Actress statue at the 2009 Academy Awards and led the aforementioned The Blind Side to a whopping $309 million box office tally.
Concurrently, it’s the problematic formula for success that turned The Blind Side’s real-life triumph figure—and intelligent, fully functional NFL athlete—Michael “Big Mike” Oher (played by Quinton Aaron) into Of Mice and Men’s Lennie Small in shoulder pads and a helmet. In Million Dollar Arm, Rinku and Dinesh are similarly marginalized. They’re smiling, wide-eyed ciphers through whom fish-in-unfamiliar-American-water cliches are funneled, including “outsider discovers pizza,” “outsider uses his first iPod,” and the always bankable “outsider watches The Hills and makes a Spencer Pratt joke.”
It’s implied throughout Million Dollar Arm that Rinku and Dinesh have the potential to be solid MLB pitchers, but Million Dollar Arm has no time for any actual baseball-playing or fastball-hurling. When the film reaches their disastrous audition for a gang of MLB scouts, their awful performances on the mound aren’t surprising or even remotely jarring—it’s exactly what you’d expect from two guys who’ve never played professional ball, and whom you’ve hardly seen working on the rubber.
Gillespie and screenwriter Tom McCarthy (the gifted filmmaker behind The Visitor and Win Win) are far more concerned with J.B. Bernstein’s budding romance with his beautiful and spunky tenant, nursing student Brenda (a charming Lake Bell, the film’s biggest positive despite her character’s superfluousness), as well as Bernstein’s inevitable self-realization that he’s a selfish douchebag with reprehensible priorities. But, let’s not forget, he’s a douchebag who's, deep down, a good guy, as seen when he returns from India with a handheld toy model of the Taj Mahal for Brenda, who’s always dreamed of visiting that Indian landmark.
Million Dollar Arm spends a brief amount of time in Rinku and Dinesh’s native land, showing their meager living conditions which contrast dramatically with Bernstein’s luxurious Los Angeles bachelor pad. Their impoverished homes are seen, of course, through Hamm’s character’s eyes. Rather than devote any real time to getting to know Rinku and Dinesh in their home country, Gillespie and McCarthy offer quick glimpses of Rinku’s abode as Bernstein walks through it, his sunglasses looking cool and Hamm, who’s generally pedestrian throughout the film, doing little to evoke any sense of interest or astonishment. He’d much rather chat with Brenda over Skype, their jovial laptop conversations taking up most of Million Dollar Arm’s duration within India.
Since it’s a Disney product, Million Dollar Arm eventually reaches its big moment of redemption for Rinku and Dinesh, only after Bernstein’s own redemption is driven home in a scene where the wannabe baseball players cook him dinner and serve the food. Before their second tryout begins, Rinku and Dinesh listen to a you-can-do-it speech by fellow India transplant Amit (Pitobash), Hamm’s cartoonishly peppy sidekick whom he first meets in Mumbai and an aspiring coach. It’s expectedly heartwarming, positing Rinku and Dinesh as proof that a dream shared by young Amit and India’s current kids is, against all odds, feasible. If they put their hearts and minds to it, they can be become professional baseball players. The sentiment is right, but the film’s execution of it is pap.
Because it’s been all Maguire and minimal Slumdog, you’re never connected to the story’s Indian side; thus, Amit’s monologue feels gratuitous and unearned. We don't know those dreaming youngsters Amit's talking about. In Million Dollar Arm, India is only a pocket-sized model of the Taj Mahal.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer and outspoken hater of The Blind Side and the fact that Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for that terrible film. He tweets here.