Risking Change

Disney’s no stranger to inspirational sports films (Miracle, Invincible, and The Rookie, to name a few). Their latest, Million Dollar Arm, while inspirational, feels different. Maybe it’s because it’s more intimate, about individuals rather than team. Or maybe it’s because it’s a sports film that really isn’t about sports at all.

Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm tells the story of J. B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a struggling sports agent, whose company is falling apart. Faced with the possibility of “losing it all,” he gets a wild idea to recruit baseball pitchers from India. He stages a competition throughout India, the titular Million Dollar Arm, and two young men, Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), win and return to the United States with J. B. for training and a tryout for Major League Baseball scouts.

There’s very little baseball played in this baseball movie. The first third of the film is J. B.’s career falling apart, the second third is the competition in India, and the final third is Rinku and Dinesh’s training and tryout. This is very much J. B.’s story, despite Rinku and Dinesh’s eventual success. It is as much about his spiritual transformation as their physical development, which is a strength of the film.

As a result, there are a few important themes at work, which family viewers might find worth discussing. The first is the emptiness of material possessions. J. B. “has it all,” but is essentially alone and listless. As connected as he is, J. B. only becomes a true champion for Rinku and Dinesh when he puts all these material possessions on the line to see that they get a second chance at their MLB tryout.

This touches on a second theme, living life in service to others. J. B. eventually does this, with no small help from his tenant, Brenda (Lake Bell, who is by far the best part of the film). She gradually becomes his significant other, but from the start, she is his moral compass, so to speak. She forces J. B. to really see Rinku and Dinesh for who they are, not just potential MLB pitchers, but frightened, displaced young men looking for a guide in their confusing, new surroundings. Finally, J. B.’s whole experience is based on one huge risk, turning cricket bowlers into baseball pitchers. J. B.’s success reveals yet again the benefits of thinking outside the box, even when failure is almost definitely assured.

Extremely cynical viewers might decry further first world exploitation of the developing world, but the film treats Rinku, Dinesh, their families, and their surroundings with integrity. Rinku and Dinesh’s religious traditions are taken as a matter of fact and they are a clear challenge to J. B.’s materialistic lifestyle. Along the way, there are some genuinely funny moments that lighten the mood. In the end, as with all good sports movies, Million Dollar Arm, says just as much about life as it does the sport on which it’s based.

Million Dollar Arm (124 mins) is rated PG for mild language and some suggestive content and is in theaters everywhere tomorrow.

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About J. Ryan Parker

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