“Million Dollar Arm” is a baseball movie that pulls off a smooth triple play. It’s a character-based comedy drama that’s also a smart film about the business of sports. As if it weren’t difficult enough to work that double angle, there’s also an exotic international focus. The story concerns immigrant players struggling with social disorientation and homesickness, an under-reported aspect of the game that has caused many a gifted recruit to fail. And by the way, it’s all based on a true story.
There are a lot of ideas in motion here, but the thoughtful script by Tom McCarthy (of Pixar’s “Up”) juggles them nimbly. McCarthy writes incisively about character and populates the story with people we like. He portrays the world of high-salary sports management as intensively competitive, even cutthroat.
We meet the film’s sort-of hero, playboy sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), at a point when his small firm is barely treading water. Bernstein is no idealist, but neither is he a cynical jackal. Hamm makes him a complex figure, a man with a conscience who also has bills to pay. And models to date. He can do wonders with the curve of a smile or an embarrassed silence.
Unable to offer clients the million-dollar signing bonuses that big rival firms can deliver, he scrambles for a new idea. With Alan Arkin on hand as a nap-prone retired MLB scout, he travels to India on a talent hunt. It’s an eye-opener for a man with a careerist’s tunnel vision. He can’t fathom the game of cricket, marveling, “It looks like an insane asylum opened up and all the inmates were allowed to play.”
Eventually he harvests two stellar pitchers — one a cricket bowler, the other a javelin star — and imports them to his Los Angeles home. He operates like an absentee father, leaving them to their own devices at home while pushing them on the field. They don’t thrive. Gradually he sees that his influence is not entirely healthy.
Lake Bell plays the medical student who rents Bernstein’s pool house and offers touchy-feely advice to the perplexed agent. Bill Paxton plays a sports psychologist who teaches the self-centered Bernstein to see his relationship with his young players as more than a simple business deal. The film unfolds as a coming-of-age story for a man who never quite grew up.
The film has its flaws. It dawdles to its foregone conclusion, leaving viewers in need of a seventh-inning stretch. And it could devote more attention to the young Indian hopefuls. Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma are engaging but play almost interchangeable roles.
Aasif Mandvi, as Bernstein’s confident, amusing Indian-American business partner, gets much more to chew on. Even so, the finished product is clever and sweetly entertaining.