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Million Dollar Arm

Million Dollar Arm

Who's idea was it to have him swing his jacket over his
shoulder for the promo? That's like the worst idea in
human history, even worse than the idea behind
Million Dollar Arm

dir: Craig Gillespie


I am second to no-one in my love of Jon Hamm. There’s no way I would have watched years and years of Mad Men if it wasn’t for him. Well, that’s probably not true, the series has a deep bench of great actors and characters. I can honestly say, though, that had Jon Hamm not been in this flick, there’s no way I would have ever bothered watching it.

Seriously, I could not care less than I already do about baseball. That would have been my first mistake, because though this flick has little to do with the actual game of baseball, it hits all the same beats of a sports flick.

It’s also based on a true story, and true stories are never boring, and they never go wrong, do they?

A movie made about a bunch of people, about something that really happened invariably is either going to be about how something they did or what happened to them went really really right or really really wrong.

Honestly, with all due or no due respect to any of the people involved in the actual story of what happened here, it is un-fucking-believable that this got made into a movie. Millions of dollars were spent bringing this story to the screen, and it’s the most inexplicably bizarrely misplaced story I’ve ever heard of, transformed into a ‘success’ story.

A guy (Hamm), desperate in his business as some sort of sports agent / manager to the stars, is hanging by his fingertips on the precipice of failure. I mean, he’s rich and all, and that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change regardless, and he bangs models whenever he feels like it, but this could all be taken away from him in a second.

The reason is, he has no talent. Not, I mean, personal attributes and qualities and such, but in terms of a roster of sports stars through which he could earn his keep. He desperately tries to woo a young up and coming linebacker with the unlikely name of Popo, but it comes to naught.

In a scene so unlikely it must have really happened, somehow our Hamm-helmed genius, who doesn’t really seem to be that good at anything, synthesises two completely disparate pieces of information in order to come up with a plan.

His business partner (Aasif Mandvi, who used to be on The Daily Show) has an Indian background, and keeps wanking on about what great athletes cricket players are.

Talking about cricket in a film aimed at Americans: man, they really wanted to push a heap of shit uphill.

JB, the main character, is somehow convinced that if he went to India, there would be all these great bowlers there who it would be a cinch to get them to convert to baseball, and become great pitchers.

And because he’s also flicking between channels, as he disconsolately watches television, and is watching Susan Boyle in her Britain’s Got Talent debut singing I Dreamed a Dream, he combines one terrible idea with another: go to India, find bowlers, and turn it into a reality program / talent competition for big bucks and bigger prizes.

I know nothing about baseball. I don’t pretend to know anything about any sport, least of all American sports. And I know next to nothing about India, or about hosting competitions, or any combinations thereof.

But even I know that this idea, this one great idea, is possibly the dumbest idea any American has ever had, excluding perhaps the parents of that nine-year-old girl who thought it would be sweet if they let her use an Uzi at a shooting range.

It’s monumentally stupid. Bowling and pitching have nothing in common other than that they are motions performed with an arm/hand. By that logic he could have had a competition to track down the Best Wankers in all of Uttar Pradesh or the Jolliest Jerkers in all of Jaipur, and it would have made as much logical sense.

The funniest thing for me is that the flick never bothers to disabuse us of this notion. It’s a stupid idea from beginning to end, regardless of what lessons are learned and what feelings are expressed along the way.

In his Quixote-like pursuit of the pinnacle of stupidity, JB ties his fortunes to this concept, to the point where if he doesn’t somehow miraculously find a couple of kids who are miraculously good at playing baseball in a country of millions who don’t play baseball, and if they don’t somehow get to tryout for the baseball scouts of Major League Baseball, then all will lead to ruin, not just for him, but for everyone around him.

In essence, we realise, like they do, that there was never any logic to his thinking, and that, yes, if you test a sufficiently large sample of a population, you might randomly find someone with traits useful to your purposes. But that’s not, even then, going to lead to a desirable result.

He could just as easily have gone to China, Tanzania or even Dubbo and run the same competition with probably the same ultimate result.

You have to hand it to the makers of the flick that they can spin what actually, ultimately happened into a feel good redemption story about a guy who learns to blah blah instead of blah blah blahing. Yuppie redemption story is what we used to call it back in the day, and it’s equally applicable here.

Jon Hamm, gods love him, is a man I adore, but he’s got less range than I do, and I’m not an actor. He is pretty much indistinguishable from his Don Draper character for most of this, giving line readings that vary little from flat to peeved to bored but charming. This character has nowhere to go, really, but, I can’t help it, I still like watching what he does.

It’s also funny, and perhaps more honest when we see the scenes in India where JB is pretty much disgusted with the place and with the Indian way of doing business. All he cares about is the ‘deal’, whatever that deal is. Getting himself back into a position of prosperity is all that matters. So much so that even when he’s at Agra, conducting his competition right next to the Taj Mahal, he doesn’t even bother looking at it. It’s just a building, after all. Doesn’t compete with getting that payday, no way. This is definitely not a case where someone gets to appreciate another culture and ‘go native’. Oh boy, no freaking way.

The person who points out this perverse obliviousness to what ‘really’ matters is the love interest, and it’s a particularly plot device like love interest, but Lake Bell manages to infuse the role with breezy charm and humour. A charming and funny actor like Lake Bell makes a mannequin like Hamm look less stiff, more human, and she has the same effect on the story.

The absurdity of the story doesn’t detract from its pleasures, because it still manages to elicit some laughs and some emotion from the predicament of the two poor bastards that actually had the raw talent and became a part of this ridiculous charade.

That two poor Indian kids actually got sucked up into this fiasco makes my heart hurt a little for them. The kid from Life of Pi (Suraj Sharma) and the guy who played the selfish evil gangster brother in Slumdog Millionaire (Madhur Mittal) fulfil the roles of the country bumpkin naifs who get pulled along pretty much against their will, in the hope that somehow the random ability to be able to throw a baseball faster than most other kids will somehow = ticket out of poverty for them and their families.

Did it? Well, I’ll leave that to your imaginations, or for you to find out yourself in the unlikely event that any other people other than myself and Jon Hamm get to watch this flick. That it trumpets the fact that the two chaps got to be the first two Indian nationals ever to be scouted by the majors is perhaps reasonable. The absence of any other information about how well they might have done afterwards speaks volumes, especially as the tubes of the internets only prove how much of a fiasco this whole idea was.

I don’t wish ill for any of the protagonists in this, either the characters. What I find fascinating is how screenwriters can take something that doesn’t sound like a story worth telling at all, not even one you’d tell to people in comas, or to the jury in a court of law even if you had to, and somehow transform it into an uplifting and heart-warming about people learning to care more about other people, and overcoming stuff, and being winners, in some incredibly narrow way. Disney’s great at doing that, and Australian director Craig Gillespie, who probably knows even less about baseball than I do, really nails this treacly pabulum in its sweet spot.

Surely nothing else matters beyond that.

7 times Hamm is the Mann in any context and situation out of 10

“It looks like an insane asylum opened up and all the inmates were allowed to play.” – I don’t know if he’s describing a cricket match or a session in Parliament – Million Dollar Arm