They had me at the bobble heads.
I was attracted to the cinema to see “Million Dollar Arm” because I knew the content involved two of my passions: baseball and other cultures. However, my expectation level was low because I rarely find a sports flick I really like. Of the top 100 sports films on Moviefones best sports movies, the only one I would rate high up on my list of all-time great films would be “Chariots of Fire”.
Some of the other flicks are good. For example, I like “Field of Dreams” even though I generally can’t tolerate Kevin Costner in anything. On the other hand, other films in the sports genre are sometimes either too inane (“A League of Their Own”) or ribald (“Slap Shot”, “Bull Durham”) for my taste.
I knew when I saw the bobble heads on the desk of the main character, sports agent J.B. Bernstein, in the opening scene as he negotiated with a client that I was going to like “Million Dollar Arm”. I have been thinking of changing up my hobby from collecting baseball caps to gathering those little shaking craniums. Those things are one of the reasons I like the ambience of ESPN’s “Mike and Mike” sports talk show.
It turns out that the bobble heads were just a taste of the sweetness offered by this surprising flick. Any good story should be told in such a way that the partaker can identify with the characters, and I was immediately drawn to J.B. because he is a curmudgeon like me, albeit a younger one.
He is also a workaholic, another trait I share. The only distraction he has is an occasional fling with a bimbo model.
His business partner Ash chastises for his shallowness when the female living on J.B.’s property in a bungalow passes by and greets them. “She’s not my type,” says J.B. of his tenant Brenda. Of course, Ash sees her as the perfect woman for him: intelligent, with a great job as a physician, and beautiful to boot.
Unfortunately for him, he watches his three-year old venture as an independent sports agent begin to go down in flames when his primary prospect, a star NFL player, ditches him because he can’t fulfill the linebacker’s unreasonable demands.
In the middle of soothing his pain by flipping channels, he encounters Susan Boyle on “Britain’s Got Talent”. The screen identifies her job as “unemployed”, yet this plain middle-aged woman mesmerizes Simon Cowell and the other judges.
The remote also brings J.B. to a cricket match. He has just been discussing the sport with the ethnic South Asian Ash, who loves it. J.B.’s depressed, mundane face begins to spark as he flips from Susan Boyle to cricket and back again. He has had an epiphany.
He will attempt to salvage his job by promoting a contest in India which will seek out two young men skilled enough to be trained to play baseball. The goal will be for them to gain a major league tryout.
For J.B. it is all about the deal and his own success, at least initially. In the long run, he sees big dollars in the half billion population of India suddenly becoming baseball fans because a couple of their own make it in the sport. He convinces Chinese businessman Chang to invest in this context, noting the market for things like T-shirts and jerseys.
J.B’s self absorption is on full display when he arrives in India. He gripes about the weather, business culture and accommodations he experiences in India. JB. even complains about the constant honking of car horns.
For me, the Indian landscape and culture is thrilling, even the slums and crowds. I had a job offer there once, but after I found the rupee was worth one third of the dollar, I figured I would never be able to save enough money to leave.
Brenda affirms my view when she skypes with J.B. over things like washer repair. She wants to see her landlords surroundings. For J.B., even the Taj Mahal is unimpressive.
However, he does have some reason to whine. At first none of the young guys competing can throw a baseball more than 30 or 40 miles per hour, far from the 90 mph heaters of the professional pitcher. On top of that, his expert judge is a retired major league scout named Ray (beautifully played by Alan Arkin) who seems more interested in napping than evaluating talent.
As J.B. hits one roadblock after another, he manifests a typical characteristic of his personality type. He expresses rage and blame toward those who he believes are putting obstacles in his way, including his two contest winners, Dinesh and Rinku.
It is Brenda who begins to get through J.B.’s thick skull and transforms him. She is not only bright and lovely, but also a perfect counterpart for the surly agent because she is a no-nonsense woman willing to speak her mind. Her affection for J.B. rises and falls depending on his ability to show a softer side to those around him, and he begins to get the message.
“Million Dollar Arm” is primarily about metamorphosis. J.B. does changes, slowly. So does his Indian gopher Amit, who at first appears to be a happy-go-lucky baseball nut and after thought, but eventually plays a key role in the success of J.B.’s scheme. Even the narcoleptic Ray becomes heroic.
By the end of this film, based on a true story, I was ready to hand out Academy Awards. That may be a little over the top, even though Tom McCarthy’s screenplay should definitely get a look from the Oscar voters. In any case, “Million Dollar Arm” has made my own list of one of the best sports movies ever made.