‘Million Dollar Arm’ winds up more than sports film

Photo by RON PHILLIPS -- Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), from left,  Rinku (Suraj Sharma), J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and Amit (Pitobash) share a scene in 'Million Dollar Arm.' Show caption
Photo by RON PHILLIPS -- Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), from left, Rinku (Suraj Sharma), J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and Amit (Pitobash) share a scene in 'Million Dollar Arm.'

Reviewer’s Rating: ★★★

On its surface, “Million Dollar Arm” is a sports movie. A charming, surprising film, it succeeds because it’s more than a sports movie.

Before the based-in-fact “Million Dollar Arm” goes long with a familiar, forced path of lessons learned and changes of heart, it’s an amusing account of culture clashes. The clashes are sparked by the big idea down-on-his-luck American sports agent J.B. Bernstein gets.

Jon Hamm, star of TV’s “Mad Men,” leads the “Million Dollar Arm” cast as Bernstein. With “Mad Men” in its final season, Hamm, an actor who thus far has done more television work than film, moves easily into his latest film role. There’s also a heavy salesman component in the part, something Hamm has so successfully portrayed in his five “Mad Men” seasons as advertising executive Don Draper.

Following the profitable career Bernstein had prior to founding his own agency, he desperately needs to sign a new star to his failing company. Inspired by his business partner’s devotion to cricket — the British game involving a bat, ball and pitching — he travels to the former British colony of India in search of cricket players who can adapt to American baseball.

Screenwriter Tom McCarthy (“Up,” “The Station Agent”) crafts a funny and heart-warming interpretation of Bernstein’s real-life journey to India.

Bernstein’s team in India includes retired baseball scout and professional curmudgeon Ray Poitevint. Alan Arkin scores comic points as the often-asleep-during-daylight scout. It’s another of his funny old man performances.

To attract large numbers of possible baseball stars, Bernstein tours India in search of contestants for an Indian reality television show called “The Million Dollar Arm.” These Indian scenes are shot on location in Mumbai, Lucknow and Agra, so the film has plenty of geographical authenticity.

American and international audiences have seen the two young Indian actors who play Berstein’s recruits, Rinku and Dinesh, before. Suraj Sharma starred as the lead character in Ang Lee’s “Life Of Pi.” Madhur Mittal played the villain Salim in “Slumdog Millionaire.”

In “Million Dollar Arm,” Sharma and Mittal play open-hearted, polite young men from a small, poor village left wide-eyed and amazed by America’s wealth and comfort. The script plays their misadventures in Los Angeles for cute, innocent laughs.

More comedy comes from diminutive, single-name Indian actor Pitobash as Amit. Making his American film debut, barrel-of-energy and baseball fan Pitobash is eager to please his new employer, whom he repeatedly refers to as, “J.B., sir.”

“Million Dollar Arm” maintains its comic momentum until Bernstein and his team’s hopes and dreams begin unraveling. No matter how much potential Rinku and Dinesh have, baseball pros are not built from scratch in the quick space of months. When this sobering fact arrives, in concert with lecturing and moralizing, the film endures a drastic shift in tone as its entertainment value plummets. And a subplot involving Bernstein and Lake Bell’s doctor-in-training, Brenda, however true to life it is, feels like an overly convenient way to inject romance into the story.

“Million Dollar Arm” does so many things well that, even though it loses steam and barely recovers, it’s still a trip to India and back again that’s worth taking.