Friday, August 22, 2014

'Million Dollar Arm' (2014) directed by Craig Gillespie

Baseball and cinema make a weirdly compelling combination.  I've never seen a truly astonishing American football or ice hockey film, and the only classic basketball film is a documentary (maybe there's an argument for Space Jam).  But there's something different about baseball, some mystic weight that's all to easy to find in the sport.  The Kevin Costner baseball duo Field of Dreams and Bull Durham are essentially baseball as a path to Zen enlightenment, and Robert Redford's The Natural weaves the sport into the fabric of Americana.  I even have a soft spot for A League of Their Own.

Can Disney's Million Dollar Arm scale these lofty heights?  Well, no.  Not really.  In fact, for a film about baseball, there's actually very little baseball in the film - the sport itself more of a background noise.  Instead what we get is a movie where a busy, single urban professional in his 40s learns the importance of family and responsibility.  I strongly suspect that, deep in the cellars of the Magic Kingdom, there's a machine churning out doggerel like this by the yard. 

Our stressed, deal-hungry professional (with a Blackberry bolted onto the side of this head) is JB (Jon Hamm), struggling sports agent.  He used to be a big shot, but after making the decision to go it alone his business is struggling - unable to attract any big stars to his management service.  The spark of creativity still flickers within him and he's sure he can find some hot young, unexploited talent.  But where?

In a bizarre sequence we see a depressed JB late-night channel-surfing, beer in hand.  He flicks onto a cricket game.  In boredom he flips the channel.  It's Susan Boyle singing I Dreamed a Dream on Britain's Got Talent.  JB grimaces.  Back to the cricket.  Grimace. Flip back to Boyle. Ant n Dec grin madly at the camera.  Grimace. Cricket. Flip. Boyle. Flip. Dec. Grimace. Flip. Cricket. Boyle. Ant. Cricket. SUSAN BOYLE! ANT! DEC! CRICKET!

EUREKA!  (he jumps to his feet)

"I'm going to set up a pan-Indian televised talent show to discover new pitching talent and pay a million dollars to the original!  And I'll call it... Million Dollar Arm".

Before we know it he's on a plane to a India to ferret out hopeful kids who can throw a baseball real fast. He winds up with Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma), two kids from poverty (though a sanitised Disney kinda poverty) and flies them back to the US.  Hijinks ensue.  They don't know what pizza is.  They don't understand how a lift works. You get the picture.  Worse, though this is their rags to riches story, the focus of the movie is almost entirely on a rich, white American and the hardships he must suffer.  

Everyone ends up living in Jon Hamm's house where he gradually assumes a paternal role for these kids, all the while gradually growing closer to sexy medical student tenant Brenda (Lake Bell).  Blah blah some stuff goes down, there's a bit of mild misery and doubt, and then a big triumphant moment where they throw a ball real fast, Jon Hamm smooches Lake Bell and we go home happy.  

Problem is that this sports story bullshit is so damn hokey and the film is so utterly drained of anything interesting that it's difficult to care.  This is a movie obviously produced to a strict template; from the plot to the casting right down to the visual style and score.  What's left is processed cinematic junk food - competently produced junk food - but lacking anything interesting.

Watching Jon Hamm working his way through a film that requires him to sit behind desks, make pitches to clients and wear smart suits unavoidably brings Mad Men's Don Draper to mind.  Consequently, this feels like the shittiest Mad Men episode ever. The vague similarities in tone mean you get frustratingly anaesthetised flashes of what Hamm is best at; presenting a calm, collected surface persona while he's going crazy inside.  But with a script this bland Hamm quickly defaults to autopilot - I hope he at least got a nice holiday in India out of it.

Visually Gillespie sticks like glue to the live action Disney visual style; all subtly over-saturated colours, conventional cinematography and grain-free superslick digitalism.  To be fair the India scenes are a huge step above everything else in the film, but it's the Taj Mahal rather than Gillespie that's doing the real leg-work here. That said the wide-shots of the Indian countryside and cityscapes crammed with life are at minimum competently executed. Everything else is cinema by numbers: a sludgy, semi-invisible rhythm of vaguely pretty LA locations populated by pretty people.

The word I've been avoiding all review is boring.  But hell, tiptoeing around it isn't going to help matters.  Million Dollar Arm is a boring, overlong slog of a movie; you don't care about the stakes, everybody has a simple A-B character progression and it's all couched in Disney's trademark mildly pleasant quasi-humour.  It's difficult to see who this is going to appeal to; it's too slow-paced for children (they were ignoring the film and playing in the aisles), and way too simplistic for an adult audience.  

This is the kind of movie that you end up watching on a long haul flight when you've exhausted every other option.  Not awful.  Just super bland.


Million Dollar Arm is released August 29th 

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