By Khalid Mohamed
It was a late afternoon well spent, the kind of feel-nice summer movie I haven’t chanced upon in many suns. Occasionally cheesy, yes. Foreseeable, a gigantic YES. Yet it had me engrossed, smiling and guffawing.
A typical Hollywood product, and that too in the marshmallowish Walt Disney format, Million Dollar Arm had some come-hither factors for me: A R Rahman’s music score featuring seven tracks, Jon Hamm the charismatic actor of the addictive TV series Mad Men in one of his rare screen outings. And its backdrop, India,where this sports movie is located for a considerable section of its running length of 120 minutes. See, what the Oscar triumphs of Slumdog Millionaire kick-started: a dekko at the little people of India who dare to dream impossible dreams.
A hybrid between Jerry Macguire, involving moral ethics in promoting sports, and Slumdog Millionaire in which an underprivileged tea-boy triumphed and how, the outcome isn’t likely to make it, though, to the Academy Awards long-list, tote big bucks at the global ticket windows, or attract rah-rah reviews. The one I read in the trade magazine,Variety, thumbed it up, albeit with reservations galore about its cinematic quality, particularly the script. True actually. Because you aren’t exactly on tenterhooks about the ending, partly because it’s based on a true story. But then even fictional plots in the sports genre – be it Rocky or our own Lagaan – come with an inbuilt lining of security, don’t they?
On the absolutely wonderful side, the plot related in a solid classic style — cause leads to effect — narrates two parallel stories. One of the success-climbing sports agent J B Bernstein (Jon Hamm). And second of the pair of backwoods boys, Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), he discovers after an arduous reality show talent hunt for potential baseball pitchers. The game is Greek and Latin in India. So the idea is to transform cricket enthusiasts into scoring at the all-American sport. Easier imagined, than achieved.
After an inter-city tour through India, hundreds of hopefuls disappoint, till Rinku and Dinesh fit the bill. After coaching, the boys could become baseball vets, but the clock is ticking. The Chinese investor in the talent hunt is making faces over his lunch of noodles. Worse, the boys and their Indian guardian (a version of Rajpal Yadav) can’t quite cope with the culture and cuisine shock of moving to the pizza-fed Los Angeles.
Indeed, those speeding shots of the barren Indian countryside and the traffic madness in the Indian cities, contrasted with the aerial footage showing the orderly flow of cool cars on the L A highway, may appear to be a cliché, but are nevertheless effective. In fact, those aerial shots are stunning.
Next: J B’s private life is in a twirl as he moves from his regular dates with peroxide blondes to the frank-talking medical intern (Lake Bell) next door. The investor is looking more ill-tempered than someone stuck for hours in an elevator. The coach has given up hope. Plus, the boys are acting up, demanding extra-attention or asking J B silly questions about the intern, “Did she kiss you?” goes the question. Comes the answer, after a pause, “No. She did!”
Light as a feather in its dialogue and interplay between the busload of characters, the Disney picture ensures – somewhat like our Barjatiya productions – that life’s as wholesome as freshly squeezed orange juice. No one dares to smoke a cigarette, Scotch is consumed under extreme duress, and JB’s boudoir antics are kept strictly off-screen. Rinku and Dinesh are constantly supportive of each other, instead of getting competitive. And of course there’s an underlying message: don’t exploit others’ feelings. Never make anyone feel inferior. Above all, be sensitive to people’s anxieties and traditional rituals for the optimum results. Sweet.
The interludes showing the boys’ deep-rooted ties with their families, their abiding faith in prayers (with an impromptu mandir set up at JB’s swishy villa), and their Peter Sellers-like bafflement at a Hollywood poolside party, are caught observantly, and entertainingly.
On the downside, an Indian masala dinner and a speechlet by the Indian guardian before the boys go for a crucial test of strength, are plainly embarrassing. So’s the business about bringing a miniature Taj Mahal home, instead of even visiting the wonder of the world. Gratifyingly, the condescension to Indians which J B betrays unwittingly, are immediately corrected.
Throughout, Million Dollar Arm, is enhanced by A R Rahman’s extraordinary score. Sure it has a Slumdog Millionaire flavour – Jai ho is even used for a Bollywood cheerleader-type of stage show. Undoubtedly, though, it’s a flavour I’d love to taste again and again. Rahman rocks the proceedings to such an extent that I’d see the film again, eyes closed, just to bask in the various riffs on Indian and western instruments. No easy electronica short-cuts for him.
The film’s technically efficient with great photography sometimes, sometimes not. Obviously, director Craig Gillespie elects to concentrate on extracting performances of substance from his vast crew. As the boys, Suraj Sharma (from Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (the wayward brother from Slumdog), are totally likeable.
Alan Arkin, after Argo, shows up as a sleep-deprived baseball veteran, a part which he performs as effortlessly as falling off a log. And Jon Hamm has what it takes – sheer charm, fluid body language and loads of energy – to be entirely believable as a business shark-turned-nice-guy.
Now, any take on any film must be rated with those one to five stars. Right? I’ll do my duty in assigning three..no no, three and a half..what the hell, four stars to this surprise relaxant. A blues chaser for sure.
Categories: Is the movie worth your buck?
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