This month’s Vanity Fair cover guy Jon Hamm is busy. The seventh season of “Mad Men” is underway and he can also be found in the family-inviting “Million Dollar Arm.” While Don Draper’s portrayer is the star here, he’s hardly the sole reason the winning baseball flick connects.
And so a quick backstory. It was a few years back but memorable just the same. Writer-director Tom McCarthy was in Denver doing publicity for “The Visitor.” Accompanying him was the incomparable Richard Jenkins, who would later be nominated for a best-actor Oscar for his performance as a widower whose New York apartment is inhabited by a couple of undocumented immigrants.
McCarthy and Jenkins sat at Dixons restaurant on 16th since shuttered. Their heads were tilted at the same slight angle; their eyes riveted to the TV screen. They were watching SportsCenter’s countdown of the week.
Ah, the love of the game. Any game, it seemed. A few years later,McCarthy came to town again for the touchingly funny high-school wrestling movie “Win Win.”
Now he’s written the sports-savvy “Million Dollar Arm,” based on actual events, with broad, even global appeal, not least because it concerns two guys hoping to become major league pitchers who hail from a vast population of movie-lovers: India.
Hamm plays JB Bernstein, a sports agent who, in a dire moment in his company’s biz, cooks up a pitching challenge to take to one of the last untapped markets for baseball. Tzi Ma plays Chang, JB’s savvy and terse backer.
Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) are the two young men who compete in the televised event, then travel from India to Los Angeles in hopes of landing a major league contract, though neither’s ever played baseball. An eager to-please-imp named Amit (Pitobash Tripathy) comes along as interpreter, chaperone and hungry baseball acolyte.
Aasif Mandvi plays Aash, JB’s business partner. Their company’s woes began in earnest when JB wasn’t able to reel in a big-money client, footballer Popo (Cincinnati Bengal linebacker Rey Maualuga).
Aash is smart, loyal, a parent. That last fact may be why, even more than his Indian heritage, that he takes JB to task when he plays a little fast and lose with his trio of strangers in LaLaLand.
Lake Bell portrays Brenda, a medical resident and JB’s tenant. She’s bright, relaxed, an authentic beauty though not in some flashy way. In other words, she’s not like the models JB’s known to hook up with. A good listener, she knows the yearnings and burdens of JB’s wards long before he does.
Actually, a number of characters step up to the plate as the conscience of baseball, the caretakers of the boys or both.
Alan Arkin brings his pleasing, can’t-be-bothered crankiness to his role as the baseball scout who accompanies JB in India. Bill Paxton portrays the pitching guru whose wisdom is as celebrated as it is contested.
JB is not the wisest of men and “Million Dollar Arm” makes no bones about him being a character in need of an upward arc. Even so, the movie never sacrifices the other characters as mere handmaidens to his growth.
Did we mention the screenwriter? McCarthy didn’t direct “Million Dollar Arm” (Craig Gillispie did the honors) but his grip on the emotion and humor in this saga is unmistakable. Feel-good drama? Absolutely. But an ace skillset helped Hamm and a deep bench ensemble send this one soaring.
-LISA KENNEDY, DENVER POST