'Million Dollar Arm' good, but not a grand slam

Bob Cohn
| Thursday, May 15, 2014, 8:55 p.m.

The character of JB Bernstein in the film “Million Dollar Arm” is far removed from Jon Hamm's signature role as Don Draper in the hit cable series, “Mad Men.” Hamm's Bernstein is neither tortured, an alcoholic nor completely amoral. But like Draper, he is a rascal in dire need of an attitude adjustment.

An L.A. sports agent, Bernstein is kind of a cliché, a throwback to the “Mad Men” days. He has a Porsche and, as they used to say, a bachelor pad complete with hot and cold running models. He is a self-absorbed hedonist who can't stay off his cell phone. He loves his “single life.”

Also, his business teeters on the brink. Understandably, in this instance, little else matters. But deep down, JB is a decent sort, a well-meaning, likeable guy. All he needs is to figure out what is really important. Try to guess if he does.

If you somehow missed the ads and publicity, “Million Dollar Arm” is the Disneyfied, based-on-a-true-story account of two teens from India who had never touched a baseball and end up as pitchers who sign with the Pirates. It's all pretty remarkable.

But Bernstein, central to the proceedings, cannot be ignored. Thus, the film not only depicts the physical, cultural and emotional transformations of the two kids, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mattal), it also poses a moralistic tale of JB's own journey to a strange place, the land of redemption. Both the young and the not-so-young come of age.

The key element is Brenda (Lake Bell), Bernstein's neighbor and tenant (he also is a landlord), an earthy, earnest, hard-working medical student. She is everything Bernstein is not — younger but wiser, sensitive, grounded, giving, grounded, even-keeled and grounded. Even Rinku and Dinesh, through their struggles and hopes, have a thing or two to teach JB.

Don't be alarmed or surprised. It's still a baseball movie. But remember, from “Pride of the Yankees to “Bull Durham” and beyond, baseball movies are love stories, too. So be it. Along with plenty of baseball, there are some warm and comic moments. Singh, now a minor league relief pitcher for the Pirates, and others have repeatedly offered the word, “inspirational.” No argument.

Director Craig Gillespie (“Fright Night”) captures the sweaty, teeming, chaotic whirlwind of India's cities, as well as the more open and airy, but similarly disadvantaged, life in the country. But he also manages to zoom in on the upbeat spirit and basic human kindness of the folks Bernstein encounters. While Bernstein frets over how to get things done, the characters — played by Indians — remain charming and buoyantly optimistic as they try to help.

Fans of the venerable Alan Arkin might be disappointed. He pretty much sleepwalks, literally, through the film as a grizzled scout who has trouble staying awake and grouses about anything and everything when he does.

On the other hand, Aasif Mandvi, familiar to fans of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, is a delight as Bernstein's beleaguered, bemused partner. “Million Dollar Arm” for the most part is fun, funny and yes, inspirational, enhanced by knowing that what you see — most of it, anyway — really happened.

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib.

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