Million Dollar Arm


Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

Jon Hamm misses the obvious.

(2014) True Sports Drama (Disney) Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Pitobash, Darlshan Jarlwala, Gregory Alan Williams, Allyn Rachel, Tzi Ma, Rey Maualuga, Bar Paly, Al Sapienza, Jaspaul Sandhu, Lata Shukla, Harish Shandra, Yashwant Joshi, Mike Pniewski, Suehyla El-Attar, Autumn Dial, Gabriela Lopez. Directed by Craig Gillespie

Baseball, that most American of all sports, has gone global. Asian teams routinely win the Little League World Series and there have been Major League players from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. Latin America has long been a pipeline of major league baseball stars. There are even European players in the Majors. One of the places that have gone largely untapped, however, is India.

J.B. Bernstein (Hamm) is a sports agent. He’s a pretty good one, good enough to buy himself a good life; a beautiful house, a Porsche, a downtown L.A. office and a steady stream of models to date. He’s also cocky enough to think that he doesn’t need the big agency he works for, so he strikes out on his own with his partner Aash (Mandvi). There he finds out that things aren’t quite so easy.

In fact, they’re near impossible. With his agency nearly bankrupt, they are relying on signing a high-profile NFL linebacker named Popo (Maualuga) to save their bacon. However, when he is swept away by the omnipresent agents from a big corporate agency, they and their receptionist Theresa (Rachel) are left to ponder what to do next.

For J.B., the answer comes at him like a bolt of lightning. He is sitting at home, binge drinking beers and aimlessly switching back and forth on the channels of his satellite TV between Indian cricket and the talent show Britain’s Got Talent when it hits him – India has more than a billion people that don’t follow baseball. If they could find a couple of pitchers from India, guys used to bowling in cricket, it might open up a brand new market much like Fernandomania did in Mexico.

He pitches it to a Chinese-American gazillionaire named Chang (Ma) who likes the concept and decides to invest. JB wants a major league scout to go with him. Aash can’t find one but does find a retired scout named Ray (Arkin) who might just have narcolepsy but who really knows his stuff. Aided by a laid-back Indian handler named Vivek (Jarlwala) and a baseball-obsessed translator who wants to be a coach someday named Amit (Pitobash), he goes on a tour of India, setting up tryouts for the show which proves to be quite popular. Out of the tryouts he finds two prospects – Rinku (Sharma) who is gangly and graceful with an odd ritual before throwing the ball, and Dinesh (Mittal) who is a powerful thrower with control problems. The two winners accompany JB back to America.

There they will be as bewildered and confused by American culture as JB was by theirs. Working with former major league pitcher Tom House (Paxton) who now coaches at the University of Southern California, they know nothing about the game and have to be trained in the basics of fielding and batting, not to mention having their throwing motion worked on (incidentally, neither one of them played critic and both were ambivalent about the game both in the film and real life). JB kind of leaves them to the wolves.

That doesn’t sit well with Brenda (Bell), who rents the back unit of JB’s house and has gotten to know the boys. She knows they need to know he cares about them; that they feel lost and alone and without support. Of course, you know she and JB will develop a relationship but can these two raw talents from India beat the odds and get signed to a major league contract?

This is a Disney true life sports underdog movie so you can probably guess the answer to that question (and if you can’t, you can always Google it). Like a lot of these films that have come from Disney of late, this follows pretty much the same formula. Fortunately, there are some things that set it apart.

The sequences in India are colorful and amazingly shot. You get a sense of the chaotic conditions in that country, from the traffic to the lack of hygiene to the kind of crumbling colonial infrastructure that remains in a titanic bureaucracy. All that’s missing is the distinctive odor that, as Hamm puts it, comes and goes.

Lake Bell, so good in In a World… continues to develop into one of Hollywood’s most distinctive actresses. She’s smart, pretty and can be glamorous when she needs to be but seems much more comfortable in scrubs than in fancy dresses. She makes a fine foil for the likable Hamm who is looking for life after Don Draper. His role is surprisingly complex; he’s been able to get by on his charm and a grin, but that is no longer the case and he doesn’t quite know what to do about it. He also can be a bit of a jerk although he’s basically not a bad guy. In short, like most guys.

They do have Arkin amongst the fine supporting cast but he spends most of the movie literally asleep, which is a waste of the talents of a guy like Arkin. Mandvi, one of the funniest guys on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is utilized mainly as the straight man here and while he gets his share of comedic moments, again this isn’t really what he’s best at. The two young Indian actors garner empathy, but they aren’t developed well enough to go much farther than “fish out of water” status.

This is decently entertaining; you won’t go wrong by spending your ten bucks on it at the multiplex, but it isn’t anything that you’ll go home wanting to see again. While the Indian sequences certainly looked pretty marvelous on the big screen, I wouldn’t blame you for waiting to catch this on home video, but as I said, there are things that elevate it above the sports film cliches that it is desperately trying to cling to. All that’s missing is Hamm screaming “Show me the money!”

REASONS TO GO: Hamm and Bell are endearing. India sequences are quite enjoyable.

REASONS TO STAY: Formulaic. Arkin is wasted.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few mild swear words and some suggestive content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real J.B. Bernstein wasn’t an agent. He was (and is) a sports marketer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Invincible

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Blended

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Trouble With the Curve


Trouble With the Curve

Amy Adams discovers that Clint Eastwood is very sensitive about “empty chair” jokes.

(2012) Drama (Warner Brothers) Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Robert Patrick, Matthew Lillard, Joe Massingill, Ed Lauter, Chelcie Ross, Raymond Anthony Thomas, George Wyner, Bob Gunton, Jack Gilpin, Clifton Guterman, Scott Eastwood, Jay Galloway. Directed by Robert Lorenz

 

Baseball is a game of timing. The batter has to time his swing just so to connect and hit it out of the park. The runner has to start his sprint and just the right time to successfully steal the base. The outfielder has to time his jump to put himself in a position to catch the ball. And the pitcher has to know when the right time to throw that nasty fastball down the middle is or else he’ll be watching the ball exit the playing field.

Life is all about timing too. Nobody know that better than Gus Lobel (Eastwood). A longtime scout for the Atlanta Braves, he was responsible for signing some of the most important players in the history of the franchise. He’s an anachronism though; whereas in the post-Moneyball era clubs have come to rely on computers and statistics, Gus is all about instincts and intangibles. He can tell more about a player from the sound of their bat connecting to the ball than most scouts can from an entire laptop full of statistics and computer analyses. The Braves have the number two pick in the upcoming draft and they’re interested in a player named Bo Gentry (Massingill). They send Gus to check him out.

But that timing is actually bad. Gus is developing macular degeneration and isn’t seeing as well. His friend (and chief of scouting) Pete Klein (Goodman) recognizes that something is wrong. Worried for his friend and knowing that Gus’ contract is up in three months which the general manager Vince (Patrick) hasn’t decided to re-sign him, and knowing that Philip Sanderson (Lillard), an ambitious and ruthless scout wants Gus gone, calls Gus’ daughter Mickey (Adams).

Mickey is also in the midst of some bad timing. She’s a lawyer whose relationship with her dad has been chilly for some time, which is more or less how Gus wants it. She’s also ambitious and driven, bucking to be the first female partner in the firm and the youngest partner ever. She’s working on an important case for the firm and winning it would be her key to having her name on the door.

Pete wants her to go down to North Carolina and keep an eye on the old man. She’s reluctant to do it – and her proud and cantankerous dad doesn’t want her to do it. In true Hollywood fashion, that’s exactly what she does.

At first the two are back in their usual patterns of behavior. Then into the mix comes Johnny Flanagan (Timberlake), a pitcher that Gus once signed who had a promising career until he blew his arm out. Now he’s scouting for the Red Sox, hoping to land a job in their broadcast booth next season. He too is there to see Gentry and determine whether he’s worthy of the first pick in the draft.

He gets googly eyed for Mickey pretty much from moment one but she’s just out of a relationship with a fellow lawyer (Guterman) that left her feeling as if she might be emotionally closed off after all. However it doesn’t take long for Flanagan’s charm to work on her and the two begin to get closer.

However, Gus has his doubts about the arrogant, self-absorbed Gentry who certainly can hit them out of the park. Nothing the stats and his direct observation tell him that there’s anything other than big time endorsement deals and multi-million dollar contracts in Gentry’s future – other than his gut. While Gus’ baseball instincts aren’t in question, he doesn’t seem to know how to relate to his daughter and she blames him for abandoning her twice.

This is not so much a movie about baseball except metaphorically and baseball has always worked superbly well as a metaphor. This is first and foremost a movie about relationships. It is also a movie about communication – and  movie about timing, yes.

Eastwood has made an art out of playing the cantankerous old man and he does a pretty solid job of it here. He came out of retirement (as an actor) to do this for a friend and colleague when some space opened up on his directing schedule when Beyonce Knowles’ pregnancy put the planned remake of A Star is Born into turnaround. Although Eastwood isn’t saying it this time, there’s a good chance this is his final film as an actor so that accounts for something.

Adams is one of the most likable actresses in Hollywood. She’s very much the girl next door type, although she can be smoldering and sex when she needs to be (as she is in a lake swimming scene). She has some good chemistry with both Timberlake and Eastwood. I have to admit that she’s been one of my favorites for several years now.

Goodman, Patrick and Lillard are solid character performances and Goodman, who once played Babe Ruth on the silver screen, makes a fine baseball man. Lillard is a fine actor as well – no reflection on him – but his character is kind of cliché in nearly every way. I don’t think the character needed to be drawn quite the same way; he could have been a passionate believer in computers as a tool for evaluating baseball talent without being quite such a d-bag. I think the movie would have worked better with a more sympathetic antagonist.

There are some real emotional scenes to deal with here, most of which having to do with the things that caused Gus to be so closed off and, well, scared to put it bluntly. That these things affected his relationship with his daughter is a pleasant surprise. These scenes and others that deal with the way they relate to each other are the best in the movie. The presence of Eastwood and Adams doesn’t hurt either, but while the writing is flawed, the basic premise is solid and the movie works overall. Definitely this is not one just for baseball fans or geriatrics.

REASONS TO GO: Eastwood is always engaging and Adams makes a nice foil for him. Baseball sequences are good. Some nice dialogue and character development.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Would have been better without a generic antagonist.

FAMILY VALUES: The language can get salty; there are some sexual references and some of the themes are pretty heavy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eastwood, who had announced that the 2008 film Gran Torino would be his last on-camera appearance came out of acting retirement to star in long-time producing partner Lorenz’ first film as a director.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bull Durham

ATLANTA BRAVES LOVERS: The team Gus works for is the Braves;  the walls of the Braves offices (and Gus’ home) are decorated with pictures of their greatest players going back to their days as the Milwaukee Braves.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ong Bak 2