Retroactive Review: Million Dollar Arm

Million Dollar Arm may not be the most traditional baseball film, but it has a place among them.

Despite its unusual premise and indie sensibilities—at least in the first half of the film—the sentimental, family-friendly Million Dollar Arm ends up playing out like a fairly conventional sports film. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, nor does it really ask much of its audience, but sometimes that’s exactly what the audience needs. Films don’t always have to push the envelope or try to reinvent the wheel. A movie aimed at children doesn’t have to be the next art-house darling. Yes, Million Dollar Arm is a bit too predictable in places, the romance feels a bit unnecessarily added on, and it telegraphs its moral lessons, but film critics aren’t exactly the target audience here. 

The film opens with sports agent J.B. Bernstein pursuing a superstar football player, trying to persuade the athlete to sign with him. The football player turns him down,  leaving J.B. in a predicament. All of J.B.’s other clients have retired, and he’s desperate to find talent. While flipping between episodes of American Idol and a cricket match, J.B. has an epiphany. India, with its population of over one billion people, is a potential hotbed of untapped talent. J.B. comes up with the idea for a reality show, Million Dollar Arm, to discover new talent in India and soon brings in an investor. Two winners will be brought to the states to train with a professional coach, and be developed into legitimate major league talent within two years. 

The movie unfolds fairly predictably, with J.B. and the two athletes—Rinku and Dinesh—learning valuable lessons along the way. J.B. goes against the advice of pitching coach Tom House, played by Bill Paxton, pushing the two pitchers to rush through their throwing program so that he can showcase them for potentially interested major league scouts. Rinku and Dinesh learn the value of hard work, believing in themselves, and taking the work seriously. Oscar winner Alan Arkin also arrives to provide some comic relief as a crotchety, old-school scout.

The movie unfolds exactly as you’d expect, with J.B. winning the girl next door and the two pitchers winning minor league contracts. Interestingly, the film includes actual footage of the real-life Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel being informed they’ve been offered contracts by the Pittsburgh Pirates “10 months to the day after they first picked up a baseball.” The credits soon scroll across what might be the most arresting, touching scenes in the movie: an Indian boy in a homemade “Rinku” jersey setting up a dummy so he can show off for his friends by knocking a football off its shoulders. The film also includes photographs and video of the real-life Rinku and Dinesh pitching, posing for photo ops, and even meeting President Obama.

The film ends shortly thereafter, with a postscript to explain what became of the major players. J.B. ended up married with a family while the athletes’ translator/companion, Amit, eventually returned to India to teach baseball and manage a youth team. Dinesh too returned to India to continue playing baseball in India, while Rinku remained in the United States and eventually began a professional wrestling career with WWE/NXT. According to the film, Rinku and Dinesh were the first Indian athletes to sign professional contracts with an American sports league. Though neither remained in professional baseball, their impact on the sport—especially in their home country—is evident. 

Though it drags a bit in the beginning, setting up the pieces on the chessboard, the first half is arguably the most interesting part of the movie. It has almost an indie “feel” to it, as we follow J.B. around India as he searches for viable candidates for his “Million Dollar Arm” program. Once J.B. returns to Los Angeles with his two subjects, the tone shifts to a more conventional Hollywood atmosphere. While it’s not a particularly uneven movie—perhaps it’s too polished and sleek, in the end—and it didn’t affect my overall opinion of the movie, the tonal shifts just made me wish the movie had maintained the atmosphere throughout. 

Million Dollar Arm is rife with the usual sports film clichés and manufactured feel-good moments, but I think we need to consider the target audience when assessing films like this. This movie is obviously aimed at parents and children. The plot is simple enough that children can follow it easily, with just enough drama and levity sprinkled in that adults can watch along without grabbing for the remote. It would be unfair to compare Million Dollar Arm to Sugar, another fish-out-of-water underdog story, which might be a bit more gritty and dramatic and is definitely not aimed at children. 

Million Dollar Arm is clear about what it wants to be, who it’s for, and doesn’t ask too much of its audience, and I can’t really find fault in that. Is it anywhere near my favorite sports movies? No, probably not. Would I watch it again, purely for the sake of entertainment? Again, no, probably not. But would I recommend it to a child or a parent looking for a family-friendly sports movie? Absolutely without hesitation. 

Contrary to popular belief, there is a place—and audience—for sentimental sports movies. I like to look at films like Million Dollar Arm as the comfort food of movies. They’re to be indulged in and enjoyed, and while we often feel guilty or embarrassed afterward, we keep returning to them. The audience can trust that, say, Angels in the Outfield isn’t going to pull a Game of Thrones on us. We know Air Bud: Seventh Inning Fetch isn’t going to suddenly morph into Old Yeller at the eleventh hour. These movies promise the audience that there will be a happy ending once the screen fades to black. Sometimes that’s all we need.



  • Rinku Singh speaks about the movie in an interview here.

You can find Alexandra Simon ranting about things at @catswithbats, and tweeting about the Tigers on @glasshalffulmer.

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