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'Million Dollar Arm' Is A Sales Pitch In Search Of Stillness

Aasif Mandvi (left) and Jon Hamm check out the talent in <em>Million Dollar Arm</em>.
Ron Phillips
Walt Disney Pictures
Aasif Mandvi (left) and Jon Hamm check out the talent in Million Dollar Arm.

Where does Don Draper's formidable presence come from in Mad Men? From his impeccable style, sure, and from his brooding good looks, of course, but also from his stillness. A few drug-induced exceptions aside, Don is as restrained in movement as he is in his speech. The combination gives him an irresistible, if unsettling, allure; in meetings, it's his solid stare that holds your attention as much as his words.

Jon Hamm's stillness playing Don in Mad Men became particularly noticeable after I watched him in Million Dollar Arm, which, among other things, lacks a noteworthy performance to ground an otherwise loosely constructed film. Hamm doesn't play Don in Million Dollar Arm, of course, but he does play another salesman: the sports agent JB, who, after leaving a large agency to start his own business, is struggling to sign a big-name athlete and pay his bills.

In fact, Million Dollar Arm — based on a true story — begins with a pitch from JB to a superstar NFL linebacker he hopes to represent. JB doesn't quite offer the same satisfactions as Don, though. He's something closer to Jerry Maguire in need of an editor, concluding his promise to secure countless riches with a supplication: "Will you let me help you do that?"

JB leads a hurried existence, rushing around LA in his Porsche convertible. Eventually he takes that energy to India, where, with the prospect of a billion new baseball fans on his mind, he hopes to save his career by converting Indian cricket bowlers into professional pitchers. To that end, he holds a contest called Million Dollar Arm, offering two finalists an opportunity to try out for the major leagues in the U.S. And when the winners, Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), return with JB to LA, one of the first English words they learn is the essence of JB's way of life: hustle.

Looking at Hamm's previous roles, you can chart his range by whether his characters default to a smile or a stone-faced stare. If deadpan, he's Don — assertive, composed, unflappable. With a smile — which, unlike most things about Hamm, is generally strained and awkward — he flips: Now he's goofy and approachable, characteristics he used to great effect on 30 Rock.

Either way, he has presence. In Million Dollar Arm, he disappears. And he's not the only one: Between director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), writer Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent) and co-stars Bill Paxton, Alan Arkin and Lake Bell (who is good enough to make you realize how wasteful her love-interest-as-motherly-sidekick role is), there's a lot of potential talent subsumed here by plain studio fare.

Whoever you want to blame, Million Dollar Arm is a film that, like JB, is in a needless rush. This isn't the hurry of a tense thriller. Instead, with time to kill, the film resembles a long car ride, with McCarthy and Gillespie producing the closest approximations to excitement possible so no one realizes they're bored. The scenes in India stuff a series of montages in between jokes about animals roaming the streets and a brief, preposterous stop at the Taj Mahal. (A Disney movie isn't where one ought to search for nuanced multiculturalism, of course, and here, at least, both sides are reduced to stereotypes: America is baseball, luxury and cultural insensitivity; India is spicy food, crowded streets and poverty.) In other moments, when a montage is too clearly out of the question, the film resorts to sudden leaps in time: anything, that is, but a stop for breath.

In the end, Hamm is most affected — there's a strain to his performance that suggests something about JB, perhaps, but also strips the character of any charisma. As a result, Million Dollar Man may be the first hint that Hamm is unable to rise above mediocre material and demand our attention regardless (an essential feature of any leading Hollywood actor or actress). But before passing judgment, I'd like to see a film that lets him sit still and prove otherwise.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tomas Hachard