The folks behind feel-good, based-on-a-true-sports-Cinderella-story, Disney movies “The Rookie” and “Miracle” are back with another. This time it is the story of a real life Jerry Maguire sports agent named J.B. Bernstein (a terrific Jon Hamm) who has fallen on hard times, despite the optimistic name of his firm: 7 Figures Management. Think of it as Jerry if Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character quit him, too. He needs some athletes to sell to major league baseball and there isn’t anyone in the world who plays baseball who isn’t already represented. He even has a line almost identical to Jerry’s famous “Help me help you.”
In one of those crazy ideas borne out of complete desperation (plus watching Susan Boyle wow the judges on “Britain’s Got Talent”), Bernstein figures that the only place left to look is India, which must be perfect because (1) no one there plays baseball, so no agents have signed anyone up, and (2) it is the second most populous country in the world, so the odds are that there must be someone there who can throw a fastball. What do they play in India instead of baseball? Among other sports, they play cricket, which J.B. describes, with all the cultural diplomacy we might expect from someone who has some important lessons to learn by the time we finish our popcorn, as looking like “the insane asylum opened up and all the inmates made up a game.”
He decides to go to India to look for what we like to call a long shot. He will stage an “American Idol”-style competition with (per the title) a million dollar prize. He gets the money for this from the wealthy Mr. Chang (Tzi Ma), who is not too worried about whether there really is a major league throwing arm in India because he figures that the competition will stir up interest in baseball for the first time in a brand new country with up to a billion new fans. And that is money in the bank.
So J.B. goes off to India where, predictably, he runs into problems with exotic food and cultural and language barriers. “Indians love honking and bypassing the system,” his affable new aide advises him. Less predictably, he runs into not one but two young men who can throw fastballs hard, Rinku (Suraj Sharma, who had his own “Million Dollar Arm” moment in real life when he was selected from 3000 actors who auditioned to star in “The Life of Pi”) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal of “Slumdog Millionaire”). He finds them with the help of an adorably cranky old scout played by Alan Arkin, as always, the best part of any movie he’s in. Of course he’s the old guy showing everyone how it’s done playing the old guy who shows everyone how it’s done, so he’s got that going. “Don’t wake me up until someone’s throwing a baseball,” he says, explaining he does not have to look at the contestants because he can hear pitching speed. And he can.
Slight problem: they not only have never played baseball before; they have never seen a baseball game and have no idea how to play or what the rules are. And it is difficult for them to learn because (1) their knowledge of English is only slightly better than their completely nonexistent knowledge of baseball, and (2) playing any sport at the professional level is very, very, very, very hard for people who have been working on it for decades and has to be impossible for anyone who has never played before.
But then, if they couldn’t do it, we wouldn’t be here, now, would we?
J.B. brings two young men back home to California. The only thing he has paid attention to is the number on that radar gun that clocks the speed of the throws, which is an impressive number. And maybe the number in his bank account, which is not a good number. He has not noticed that these are very fine young men or that they have never been away from home before. He learns very quickly that he cannot leave them in a hotel.
They move into his bachelor pad, marveling over the room for just one man but confused that they don’t see anywhere to pray. They are befriended by his tenant, a beautiful and kind-hearted doctor (Lake Bell).
JB turns the young men over to college coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), who explains why you can’t turn a non-baseball player into a major league pitcher in a matter of months, in time for the try-out Mr. Chang has put together. “It’s completely different motions, biometrics.” They do not know what a baseball glove is. But J.B. is good at one thing, persuasion. “You certainly don’t need any help with your pitching,” House tells J.B. He agrees to try to teach them that “it is not about throwing hard, but throwing right.” And they study a copy of Baseball for Dummies.
Writer Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “Win Win”) keeps things from getting too twee. The film clearly respects Rinku and Dinesh and their country, though it skirts very close to Magical Negro territory and the fish-out-of-water cultural clashes stay on the surface. The young men are not allowed to be much more than amiable innocents whose job is to give the soulless white guy an important opportunity to reconnect with his humanity (and, as a consequence, with the beautiful doctor as well). This is J.B’s story and Hamm is a pleasure to watch, with full-on, big-time movie star magnetism, and his scenes with the lovely Bell (“In a World”) have a real warmth that makes the happy ending feel earned.
Parents should know that this movie includes some mild language and sexual references. Characters have casual sex (off-screen).
Family discussion: What were the most important things JB learned in India? When he got home?
If you like this, try: “The Rookie” and “Miracle” from the same producers and also “Bend it Like Beckham”