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Million Dollar Arm' a safe bet

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Sports movie follows a familiar script

I'm a sucker for an inspirational sports movie - always have been, especially the ones that are based on a true story. There's the drama inherent to the games being played on the field, of course, and when you can insert a compelling narrative about the human element, the result can be a great movie.

Of course, the whole 'plucky underdog overcomes huge obstacles and succeeds in the face of overwhelming odds' thing has seen the screen more times than you can count, so the truth is that many (most?) sports movies that have been made in the past 15 or 20 years have a feel of the formulaic. There's a sense of interchangeability there - while the details may differ, the story remains the same.

But sometimes, that predictability doesn't matter quite so much.

Into the arena steps 'Million Dollar Arm,' based on the true story of sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm, TV's 'Mad Men') and his quest to find the first Indian professional baseball player.

Bernstein and his agency are struggling. He and his partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi, 'The Internship') are losing clients left and right; their last hope has abandoned them for a rival company. While desperately casting about for something, anything that might help keep them afloat, Bernstein finds himself watching cricket on late night television. The epiphany strikes India is the last great untapped market for the American sports machine; if he can find a way to get the billion-plus citizens of that cricket-mad nation interested in baseball, the sky is the limit.

The wheels are quickly set in motion; Bernstein enlists the help of a gifted, albeit cantankerous scout named Ray Poitevint (Alan Arkin, 'Grudge Match') and heads to India to bring 'Million Dollar Arm' to life. The two men along with eager Indian baseball fan and erstwhile coach Amit (Pitobash, 'Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobaara!') sally forth across the country in an effort to find young men with the potential to pitch professionally.

The contest proves wildly popular, and in the end, two teenagers named Rinku (Suraj Sharma, 'Life of Pi') and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, 'Treasure Island') set themselves apart and earn a trip to the United States, where they will train with legendary pitching coach Tom House (Bill Paxton, '2 Guns') while working toward a major league tryout.

But there's more than just baseball to be learned. These young men along with Amit have never been away from home before, leaving J.B. responsible for them. And while his job is to teach them about the game they're growing to love, it falls to Rinku and Dinesh as well as J.B.'s charming tenant Brenda (Lake Bell, 'In a World') to help J.B. learn that there's more to life than the art of the deal.

The folks at Disney aren't interested in reinventing the wheel; they have a long history of making this kind of film and making it successfully. 'Million Dollar Arm' is a perfect example of that there's nothing new here, but that's OK. Sticking to the formula isn't always a bad thing; there's something to be said for a movie that is perfectly happy being what it is: a well-made movie that, while perhaps lacking in surprises, offers plenty of sentiment. It's a feel-good movie that is unapologetic for its good feelings.

It works because of Jon Hamm. The film is buoyed by his charisma and general presence. The strong work of Sharma, Mittal and Pitobash also contributes mightily; not only do the three of them mesh with an engaging chemistry on-screen, but Sharma and Mittal actually look decent on the mound as well. The rest of the cast Arkin, Paxton, Mandvi, Bell all turn in quality performances; Arkin and Bell in particular are quite good.

'Million Dollar Arm' isn't great, groundbreaking cinema. The filmmakers know what works and they stick with it. The end result is a pleasant, enjoyable couple of hours at the movies. It is funny, it is sweet and it is, yes, inspirational.

It may not hit a home run, but 'Million Dollar Arm' definitely does not strike out.

[3 out of 5]


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