Million Dollar Arm might be the most repulsive “Uplifting Sports Drama” ever made. The movie pretends to show America as a land of opportunity, and athletics as a level playing field where hard work and determination are all that’s needed to succeed. But at its ugly heart, it’s about a cold, callow bastard who discovers that you can outsource your personal growth. Even though it pretends to carry the lesson about treating people as more than products, in practice, Million Dollar Arm shares the worst values of its despicable protagonist.
Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm follows struggling sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm). Bernstein previously worked at a powerhouse sports agency, but after starting his own firm alongside fellow agent Aash (Aasif Mandvi), he’s yet to score a single big client. After conveniently flipping between Britain’s Got Talent and a game of cricket, Bernstein stumbles on the idea of holding a contest, “Million Dollar Arm”, in India to find a couple of young men who might be able to cut it as a pitchers in the major league. Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) win the contest, and come to America, but their culture shock means they can’t stay in a hotel, and must live with the continually irate Bernstein. Thankfully, their subservient demeanor along with Bernstein’s wise, attractive tenant Brenda (Lake Bell), provide a makeshift family that allows him to be less of a dick.
Watching Million Dollar Arm, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Ruyard Kipling poem, “The White Man’s Burden”. The poem advocates imperialism, but notes it’s a difficult task as native, non-white people must be forced to accept the “benevolence” of the colonists. Of course, imperialism is for the good of the conqueror, and assuming that the conquered should be grateful is absurd. Although Bernstein’s actions carry the veneer of opportunity, the real purpose is to line Bernstein’s pockets off the hard work of naïve young men who are constantly referred to as “kids”.
It’s difficult to sympathize with Bernstein from the very start as we see him cry in his Porche after failing to land a major client. While we can understand the frustration in not being able to get a new business off the ground, no one is allowed to feel sadness or anger in a car that costs from around $50,000 to $100,000 dollars (I don’t know the exact model Bernstein drives in the movie). From there, he moves to a beautiful home, and in his spare time he sleeps with supermodels. You can argue that his home may be empty and sex with beautiful women may be emotionally hollow, but it all makes Bernstein come off as selfish and ungrateful, and that’s before he even steps foot in India.
Once he gets to India, he becomes even worse as he discovers a land full of incompetent employees, lackluster talent (for some reason they go on a tour of the country and hold open tryouts rather primarily focus on athletic schools and cricket teams), and food that gives you diarrhea. I don’t mind that the movie doesn’t want to depict India as a wonderland where something magical is around every corner. But even when Bernstein is standing next to the Taj Mahal, one of the most famous landmarks in the world, he can’t be bothered to take in its beauty. When asked to describe it over the phone, he responds, “It’s white,” in a voice that sounds like he couldn’t be more disinterested. Aside from Rinku and Dinesh, his best find in India is Amit (Pitobash), a comic relief character who functions as a translator and agrees to work for free because he loves baseball so much even though he doesn’t understand its finer points. Good help is so hard to find.
I understand the idea is to make Bernstein a bad guy so that he can later be redeemed by the pure souls around him, but not only does he travel far past the point of redemption, that redemption comes in the form of a cheap montage and Brenda saying something wise before turning and walking away. Bernstein doesn’t even bother to learn about Rinku and Dinesh’s personal lives beyond visiting Rinku’s home. They’re products, and like Bernstein, we hardly learn anything about them. They’re sweet, hard-working young men who are having a bit of a culture shock.
The movie doesn’t need them to be anything more than instruments that will make Bernstein a better person. Their dreams are cute, but what’s important is making sure Bernstein is going to be a “family man” and raise adorable Indians who always refer to him as “Mr. JB, sir.” To pretend that there’s something warm and fuzzy at the center of this movie would be laughable if it weren’t so despicable.
This film is an embarrassment to almost everyone involved. Jon Hamm may be charming in interviews and occasionally seductive on Mad Men, but he finds nothing endearing in Bernstein. Bell is totally wasted, Alan Arkin collects an easy paycheck by being Alan Arkin (his lackadaisical baseball scout could easily have been the same character from Grudge Match or even Argo—sharp-witted, no-nonsense old guy with a good heart), and at best you have Bill Paxton, who plays a pitching coach, as the film’s lone voice of kindness and reason. As for Sharma and Mittal, they shouldn’t be ashamed; they should be angry. They were so good in Life of Pi and Slumdog Millionaire, respectively, and here they get to be nothing more than wide-eyed idealists who may be trying to make to the majors, but no matter what, they’ll make Bernstein better through osmosis.
I’m not inherently against the true story behind Million Dollar Arm, and I don’t think we should avoid every story where there’s a mutually beneficial relationship between white and non-white characters. The problem arises when these characters are one dimensional and they’re in a dominant-subservient dynamic. Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Tom McCarthy probably wanted to set this up as a win-win situation. But when your protagonist is utter garbage who says things like “I can barely pay my bills,” as he sits next to a swimming pool behind his big house, and your wide-eyed Indian characters barely say anything at all other than “Thank you, Mr. JB, sir” and “Sorry, Mr. JB, sir,”, we all lose.