In theaters Friday, May 10
2 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
He's not smoking in the office or cheating on his wife or even playing an adman. Yet Jon Hamm still can't seem to shake his arrogantly cool Don Draper persona in his big-screen leading-man debut. And this is a sunny, based-on-a-true-story Disney outing about America's pastime!
Here’s the windup, and the pitch: Slick L.A. sports agent JB (Hamm) is desperate to give his fledging new practice a high-profile boost. After flipping channels between a traditional cricket game in India and Susan Boyle’s famous "I Dreamed a Dream" audition on Britain’s Got Talent, the proverbial light bulb goes off. His plan? Stage a contest in which local players win a spot to try out for a Major League Baseball team (he dubs it the "Million Dollar Arm.") Off to India he goes to find his baseball diamonds in the rough. (Sports puns are fun! More ahead.)
It takes a monotonous montage of wannabe pitchers throwing juuuuuuust a bit outside the strike zone for JB to find his two champs (played by Life of Pi's Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal). He jets them back to L.A., where the raw talents struggle to adapt to a new sport and culture. Indeed, these two kids "from the sticks" (JB's words) get kicked out of their hotel on the first night because they keep setting off the fire alarm. But JB, who begrudgingly lets them crash in his sweet bachelor pad, just treats them as potential dollar signs.
Though the film clearly strives to be Slumdog Millionaire meets Jerry Maguire, it lacks those classics' ingenuity. There's a distinct by-the-numbers (by-the-innings?) formula to the underdogs' journey that will look familiar to anyone who knows how to keep score in against-all-odds stories. Yes, it's all here, including the fish-out-of-water comedy moments (American pizza rules!), the disastrous second act setback and the lesson that money can’t buy happiness.
More problematic is Hamm. The handsome actor is so masterful in the alpha male role that it's often difficult to see JB as anything but a short-fused opportunist. Every time it seems like this Porsche-driving, suit-wearing "hero" might show a tiny bit of compassion to his house guests, he snaps at them. How are moviegoers supposed to root for this jerk? The more he lashes out, the more it becomes wincingly obvious that he's running a competition to help his bottom line—not trying to change a life out of the goodness of his heart.
Still, he's surrounded by some talented teammates in the dugout. The plucky and beautiful Lake Bell, as his no-nonsense tenant, is the only one to call him out on his crap and take an interest in the boys. She's winning and refreshingly laid-back and refuses to blend into the background in the stock girl role. (One more reason to dislike JB: Early on, he dismisses her as a potential love interest because "she's not a model.") The aspiring players, both quiet and hungry, also intrigue. These are the real characters with gigantic stakes to succeed: You can't help but wish the movie were told from their points of view.
Still. . . harping on a genuinely spirited and uplifting feel gooder is a little like booing the team mascot for acting too goofy on the field. This outing may not be a home run, but in a summer movie season dominated by monsters and machines, it deserves to be a solid hit.