About midway through the would-be feel-good baseball drama “Million Dollar Arm,” we see Lake Bell, literally playing the girl next door who’s going to redeem the cynical sports-agent protagonist (played by Don Draper, I mean by Jon Hamm), weeping on the sofa at the end of “The Pride of the Yankees,” the 1942 movie with Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig. (If you don’t know who either of those people were, I suppose you lie outside this film’s target demographic.) She wants to know why J.B. Bernstein, Hamm’s character, is sitting there stony-eyed while the dying Gehrig tells the Yankee Stadium faithful that he’s the luckiest man in the world. He tells her he cried the first 35 times he saw it.
This moment has almost the opposite effect from the one director Craig Gillespie and writer Thomas McCarthy are presumably going for. Instead of connecting “Million Dollar Arm” to the sentimental, mythological traditions of baseball lore, it only emphasizes the vast, unbridgeable gap between then and now. While professional sports may play an even larger role in American culture than they did in Gehrig’s day, they have been largely demystified and turned into realms of science, business, sociology and law, of chronic traumatic encephalopathy and Wins Above Replacement and an NFL draftee smooching his boyfriend and “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.” The Hollywood sports movie has had trouble adjusting to this new reality, and often seems mired in an unhappy-grandpa zone, trying to recapture the lost magic of years gone by, like Clint Eastwood talking to that chair. (The best baseball movies of recent decades, I would argue, are both indie films and fundamentally disenchanted ones, like “Sugar” and “Eight Men Out.”)
For some reason, which may not be unconnected to the personal tastes and predilections of the men in late middle age who dominate film production, the studios keep churning out middlebrow male-centric fare like “Draft Day” and “Trouble With the Curve” and “Million Dollar Arm,” to little discernible result. It’s not as if Hollywood executives fail to grasp that exceptions like “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side” were hits precisely because they didn’t feel like “sports movies,” because you didn’t have to know or care about on-base-plus-slugging or Texas high school football to follow the story. “Million Dollar Arm” is almost too obviously trying to be that kind of movie, a based-on-a-true-story blend of “The Blind Side” and “Jerry Maguire” with a side of chicken tikka masala and an exceptionally faint veneer of multiculturalism. But as that moment of Gary Cooper yearning tells us, it also has its eye dolefully fixed on the glories of the past.
“Pride of the Yankees” is very likely a better movie than “Million Dollar Arm,” but that’s not the point. I haven’t watched the former film since I was 13 years old, and don’t plan to remedy that anytime soon. But good or bad, the Cooper film spoke to its era, capturing the innocent, adolescent narcissism with which prewar white America viewed itself and its national pastime. “Million Dollar Arm” is a dithering, uncertain film from an era of dithering uncertainty, when baseball has become a thriving global enterprise but long ago lost its aura of specialness in American life. Its protagonist is a smarmy grown-up manchild protagonist, lost in a highly uninnocent grade of narcissism, whom even the charismatic Hamm can’t render especially likable. As he begins the process of trying to shake his career free of Don Draper, Hamm faces multiple dilemmas, principal among them the fact that he oozes nostalgia from every pore and it contaminates his surroundings. Whether he’s to become George Clooney or David Caruso very much hangs in the balance; I would suggest, for the time being, avoiding any character who wears a suit.
In “Pride of the Yankees,” the most beloved male movie star of his era played one of the greatest players in baseball history, who is presented as an iconic hero, a man of action, not of words, who is not immune to tragedy but entirely free of introspection. In “Million Dollar Arm,” the star of “Mad Men” plays an embittered 40ish agent who lives alone in a Beverly Hills ranch house. His once-thriving firm is sliding toward bankruptcy — he can’t even successfully seduce a mid-grade NFL linebacker without putting a million bucks up front — and his Porsche-driving, model-dating lifestyle is in grave jeopardy. Bernstein’s stroke of genius — his idea to troll India for cricket bowlers who can be converted into viable baseball pitchers — is primarily successful as an entrepreneurial scheme. (In the real world, none of Bernstein’s supposed Indian discoveries have gotten anywhere near the big leagues, a fact the movie evades. But the American Idol-style competition he devised remains a hit.)
Bernstein’s brainstorm also becomes the mechanism for saving his soul and hooking him up with the Right Girl, but those things are essentially by-products of the fact that he’s offered Major League Baseball an entry point into an untapped market of 1.2 billion people. J.B.’s trip to India, in the company of a senile baseball scout played by Alan Arkin, is massively uncomfortable, and gets more so the longer it goes on. We get bits of family back-story for both Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), the young men who win J.B.’s big talent-hunt competition. (Neither of them was a cricketer, interestingly.) But this isn’t their movie. The emotional narrative of “Million Dollar Arm” is entirely about Rinku and Dinesh’s redemptive effect on J.B., and not at all about the strangeness of their journeys from remote Hindi-speaking villages to Southern California, let alone the bizarre, neocolonial spectacle that brought them there and left the rest of India behind. It wasn’t J.B. Bernstein’s job to end poverty and cure inequality, but presenting his encounter with those things as the keys to his own personal healing borders on the offensive.
In fact, the main thing Rinku and Dinesh bring into J.B.’s life, once a mishap involving a hotel elevator renders them his permanent houseguests, is family values. I’m not kidding about that; “Million Dollar Arm” is not just a Disney film, but a Disney film that could have been made, with minor elisions and different character names, in 1963. Never mind whether these two guys are ever going to be viable baseball pitchers! (Which they’re not.) Their real function in life is to travel halfway around the world and introduce spirituality, romance and home cooking into the life of a jaded Jewish guy in L.A. who has overdosed on trendy restaurants, $14 glasses of Chardonnay and 22-year-old girlfriends. With their help, he will notice at last that the medical student next door (Bell’s character) is just as skinny as a model, even if she wears less makeup. If he can’t quite live up to the lost mythology of American manhood, to the avatar of Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, at least he can show her the movie and pretend not to be bored while she cries.