In a movie culture increasingly dominated by niche audiences, there’s a special place of honor reserved for that rare film that can appeal to just about everyone. “Million Dollar Arm,” an easygoing and unpretentiously entertaining baseball drama, is just that kind of film, one that tells a terrific story by way of an appealing cast, handsome production values and a warm, unaffected tone.
Jon Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a Los Angeles sports agent who has recently started his own firm but faces imminent shuttering if he doesn’t snag a major client. While channel surfing one night, he toggles between an Indian cricket match and Susan Boyle warbling “I Dreamed a Dream” on “Britain’s Got Talent,” and he hits on his golden ticket: He’ll stage a contest in India in search of a cricket bowler with enough speed, accuracy and power to become a major league baseball pitcher.
You can almost hear the Disney pitch meeting: “It’s ‘Jerry Maguire’ meets ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ boss, it’s gonna be huge!” Except this particular tale has its roots in a real-life story first brought to light by sports producers Neil and Michael Mandt. Beautifully adapted by screenwriter Thomas McCarthy (“The Visitor,” “Win Win”) and director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”), “Million Dollar Arm” doesn’t break the familiar mold of come-from-behind sports movies — indeed, it obeys every convention of the genre. But it does so with understatement, style and an exceptional group of actors who bring just the right balance of humor and restraint to their roles.
Both of those qualities matter most when Bernstein travels to India, where his local fixer immediately informs him that preparations for the contest are running “on time and smoothly,” concepts that Bernstein soon learns are relative in Mumbai, where negotiations are more apt to take place in a clogged city street with a quiet bribe than with lawyers and contracts. (As luck would have it, Bernstein has left his Indian American partner Aash, played by Asif Maandvi, back in L.A. with vomiting twins.)
Soon “Million Dollar Arm” hits the road, in an eye-popping travelogue through the Indian countryside, where Bernstein and his scout, a grizzled compulsive napper named Ray (Alan Arkin), audition thousands of young men, each seemingly possessed of a wilder, weaker arm than the last.
Eventually, two possibilities emerge: Rinku (Suraj Sharma), an eager javelin thrower who strikes a yogalike pose before throwing the ball, and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), a solemn laborer whose filial duties to his father can’t compete with dreams of success in America. When Bernstein brings the guys back for training, what might have been a facile fish-out-of-water romp instead becomes a sobering portrait of subtle and not-so-subtle exploitation, as well as Bernstein’s own dawning awareness of the wages of single-minded ambition.
His tense face rarely breaking into a smile, his voice a hoarse growl, Hamm makes for an unusually recessive leading man in “Million Dollar Arm”; he doesn’t have the native charm of George Clooney or the sharp-edged charisma of Tom Cruise, both of whom might have played Bernstein as a rakishly disarming sharpie. But if that vaguely unlikable persona doesn’t make Hamm a natural movie star, it suits his character, who frankly isn’t that sympathetic when he’s briskly telling his charges to hurry up and work harder, even as they’re clearly suffering from homesickness and profound isolation.
Luckily, Rinku and Dinesh have brought along their own fixer, a motor-mouthed baseball fan named Amit, played by the diminutive Bollywood star Pitobash. And Bernstein has some voices of reason in his own life, namely a compassionate USC pitching coach, played by Bill Paxton, and the conveniently beautiful woman named Brenda who happens to be renting his carriage house. A scotch-drinking, straight-talking medical student, Brenda becomes an essential element in “Million Dollar Arm,” not because of the obvious love-interest opportunity she presents, but because she is portrayed by the magnificent Lake Bell, who infuses an otherwise stock character with spiky, spontaneous energy and tomboyish sex appeal.
“Million Dollar Arm” doesn’t delve too deeply into the inner lives or characterizations of Rinku and Dinesh, preferring to skate along on a plot that involves the usual proportion of setbacks to moments of hard-won triumph. Still, even fans who know how this story ends will enjoy a movie that choreographs the most predictable moments (such as a dinner party scene straight out of the rom-com playbook) with deftness and charm. “Million Dollar Arm” manages to be heartwarming and wholesome without condescending or pandering — and tells a rousing good yarn in the bargain. For all those reasons, it deserves a solid spot in the win column.
★ ★ ★
PG. At area theaters. Contains mild profanity and some suggestive content. 124 minutes.