Weekend arts: Mixed reviews for ‘Million Dollar Arm’

As a cinematically formed entity, the newly released “Million Dollar Arm” might be going the way of far too many sports-related movies.

Based on the true tale of a struggling sports agent searching for an Indian cricket star to crack American baseball, “Million Dollar Arm” has far too many milquetoast contrivances for Grant Bisbee of SB Nation.

He calls the picture starring Jon Hamm as the character based on agent J.B. Bernstein “a human interest story with uninteresting humans.”

RightOffTheBatAfter dropping a few too many Don Draper references, Bisbee admits that he couldn’t get past the fact that “Million Dollar Arm” is a Disney release.

So take that for what you think it’s worth.

The deeper story behind “Million Dollar Arm” — the intersection, if any, between the venerable sporting passions of the United States and India — has long been the subject of examination by writers and scholars.

In their 2011 book, “Right Off the Bat: Baseball, Cricket, Literature and Life,” Martin Rowe and Evander Lomke explore the connections between baseball and cricket, both in their deep historical roots, as well as cultural issues, especially the racial identities of their nations (Review and authors’ Q and A here.). It’s less about their sports and more about their societies.

The year before, “Swinging Away: How Baseball and Cricket Intersect,” was published as a catalog for a novel multi-museum exhibition that took place at the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Melbourne Cricket Ground, home of the Cricket Hall of Fame.

I visited the latter while covering the 2000 Olympics, without knowing much about the rules or history of that code. As a typical American, I couldn’t help but see with baseball-informed eyes, and noted the striking physical resemblance between the great Australian batsman Don Bradman and Ty Cobb. In real life, Bradman was a classic Victorian-bred gentlemen, while Cobb was anything but.

In assessing “Swinging Away,” The Economist threw cold water on the whole idea, saying it “is based on the revisionist notion that the two games have much in common.”

SwingingAway

“Million Dollar Arm” sticks to the present-day hunt for an Indian-born player to make the conversion from cricket bowler to baseball pitcher.

Writing at SI.com, Bay Area-based baseball writer Laith Agha wonders if the film will spark interest in baseball in India. Dinesh Patel, the first Indian-born professional baseball player, is now 25, and he had a brief, unsatisfying stint with a rookie league farm team of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The other player at the center of the story is Rinku Singh, who in real life is trying to keep his dream alive, also in the Pirates’ organization, while recovering from Tommy John surgery. Agha asks:

“What would happen if major league baseball, with its continued emphasis on global expansion, could finally tap into a market of the second-most populated nation on earth? And if Singh and Patel, who never threw a baseball until they were 19 years old, could at least secure professional contracts, then what kind of talent factory could India become if boys were to grow up on a baseball diamond rather than a cricket pitch?”

Those are questions “Million Dollar Arm” doesn’t explore all that deeply. In the real story, former major league pitcher Tom House (who famously caught Henry Aaron’s 715th home run ball) worked with Patel and Singh. He tells the Los Angeles Times that “it was really easy to teach them because they were flat-liners. The biggest issue was teaching them how to play the game.”

House, now a USC coach and who is played by Bill Paxton in the movie, also noted that such a leap likely couldn’t be done by batsmen.

But The Guardian cited the most famous “batsmen” in either code — Bradman and Babe Ruth — in examining the crossover issue. Andy Bull noted their only meeting, in 1932, when they watched a baseball game together in Ruth’s private box at Yankee Stadium.

Three years later, Ruth visited England, playing a bit of cricket while in London, although Bradman didn’t try his hand at the American game.

“Million Dollar Arm” also stars Aasif Mandvi of “The Daily Show.” At the box office, the film is going up against some Godzilla-like competition, as The Huffington Post notes. Literally.

As for a classic Tinseltown review, however, it’s hard to top this one from the Hollywood Reporter:

“As homers go, it may be of the inside-the-park variety — after all, the true story of sports agent JB Bernstein career-rehabilitating scheme to turn an Indian cricket player into the next great MLB pitching ace can’t help but feel like a Jerry Maguire/Slumdog Millionaire combo platter with a hefty side serving of The Blind Side — but it’s mighty satisfying nonetheless.”

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