Go ahead. Dismiss this fact-based sports story as inspirational hooey. But you’re missing the point and the fun. Like Invincible and Miracle, Million Dollar Arm mines the potent appeal of the underdog in athletics. It stars Jon Hamm, now in his final stretch as Don Draper on AMC’s masterful Mad Men and looking to show what he can do on the big screen. Turns out he can do plenty. With effortless star shine and a built-in bullshit detector, he finds the shadows in a character built for light. Hamm is first-rate, his nuanced portrayal lifting the movie to the winner’s circle.
Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a real-life L.A. sports agent (shades of Jerry Maguire) with his eye on opportunities to exploit. He finds it in India, where he hopes to scour the cricket field for potential baseball talent, financing his search by turning it into a reality-TV show. Traveling with a retired baseball scout (a wonderfully dyspeptic Alan Arkin), J.B. feels beaten. Then he finds two 18-year-olds, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma of Life of Pi) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal of Slumdog Millionaire), and takes them to L.A. Adjustment comes hard. You couldn’t invent a more Hollywood ending, but Rinku and Dinesh really were signed as pitchers by the Pittsburgh Pirates. What lowers the rah-rah are A-team contributions from writer Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, Win Win), director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) and sexy funny girl Lake Bell (In a World . . .), as J.B.’s med-student love interest. Hamm, holding steady and true against a wash of cornball, makes Million Dollar Arm worth rooting for.