The funny thing about true stories is that they often seem phonier than fiction, especially when the subjects are still alive and can sue, or get angry, or have their feelings hurt. Even when characters are imperfect and need to learn serious life lessons, you see their perfection inside their imperfection, like a diamond waiting to be liberated. Their lessons can only be easy and voluntary, and their transformations complete.
“Million Dollar Arm” is in that odd, fake-true category. It’s the story of “JB” Bernstein, a sports agent, and his plan to recruit from India two baseball pitchers that he would groom and ultimately sign to the major leagues. He found two guys who could really throw, who’d previously never before held a baseball. “Million Dollar Arm” is part culture-clash and part sports story, taking place partly in India though mainly in the United States.
Jon Hamm plays JB, and he is the movie’s strongest asset and its only unalloyed advantage. Alan Arkin is in the movie, too, but he sleeps through the role – this time literally. That is, he sleeps through the role of someone who is sleeping most of the time. And Lake Bell, who seems to have been given one direction, to be absolutely delightful, can’t stop smiling all over herself as Brenda, JB’s tenant. She is the saintly voice of happy truth.
Within minutes, the movie’s ending is apparent and inevitable, even to someone who knows nothing of the real story. (Actually, the real story is a lot more complicated and mixed than the fairy tale you get here.) But the movie takes forever to get there. How could a little story like this get stretched to 124 minutes? It’s at least 30 minutes too long.
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The fish-out-of-water stuff – JB’s discomfort in India, the ballplayers’ awkwardness in the United States – is squeezed for every laugh, then squeezed twice more for laughs that aren’t there. It all feels labored. In fact, very little of the comedy raises even a smile. Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to see JB’s efforts as worth it. The idea of creating major league pitchers from thin air seems far-fetched, and it’s really hard to care about the solvency of JB’s business. Yes, we can wish him well, but wishing him well enough to sit and wish for 124 minutes is too much wishing for anyone outside the immediate family.
Yet if anyone can make us feel something for JB, it’s Hamm, who, as on “Mad Men,” has the ability to suggest something substantial beneath the superficial, something real underneath the slick surface. Hamm makes “Million Dollar Arm” watchable, but not so watchable to quash the impulse to check the time every five minutes. That’s the problem with cellphones taking over for wrist watches. You can’t check the time anymore without getting thrown out of the theater.
By the way, the name “Million Dollar Arm” does not refer to anyone’s arm in particular, and no one gets a million dollars. Also note that getting signed to a major league organization is not the same as getting signed to a major league team. Look out for the smoke and mirrors.