OK, enough with the baseball metaphors . . .
What makes it work? First, it's a true story. If it weren't, you wouldn't believe it. You can't make this stuff up. Not even George Plimpton—who did make up the greatest pitcher-out-of-nowhere story of all time, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch—could've come up with this astonishing tale. (If you've never read Plimpton's brilliant fable, do it.)
Then there's the cast. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) brings Bernstein to life, inhabiting the role with panache, finding a light balance between drama and comedy. Hamm's character is confident and funny, but also, at times, pitiable—you just can't help feeling sorry for Bernstein's bad luck. Bernstein is also a cocky playboy who thinks he's content with fast cars and one-night-stands. But as key people begin to crash into his life—and even into his home—his self-centered worldview begins to break down.
Suraj Sharma (Life of Pi) and Madhur Mittal (Slumdog Millionaire) are marvelous as the Indian teenagers Rinku and Dinesh, respectively, who ultimately win the chance to come to America for a shot at pro baseball. (To Bernstein's surprise, neither played cricket, but just were fine athletes who excelled in track and field, particularly the javelin.)
Lake Bell is magnetic as a would-be love interest who teaches Bernstein a few manners and some social skills. Alan Arkin is brilliant—and hilarious—as an ornery old baseball scout with narcolepsy. Bill Paxton brings warmth to his role as a college coach charged with training the young men. Aasif Mandvi is enjoyable as Bernstein's business partner. And Bollywood veteran Pitobash provides comic relief throughout.
Visually, the film is compelling—from the good looks of the leading characters to the contrasts in scenery, switching between the glitz of downtown L.A. and pristine American ballparks, to the poverty of the slums in Mumbai and Bangalore. But we also witness India's rich beauty—its lush rural landscapes, its colorful, bustling cities, and most of all, its lovely people, and their warmth and hospitality.
And the music, a delightful blend of Western and Eastern, is a joy. India's A. R. Rahman, winner of both Academy and Grammy awards, deserves mad props for his score.
Like most sports films, Million Dollar Arm isn't ultimately only about sports.
It's about ingenuity, creativity, imagination. There's that wonderful scene in which Bernstein has his epiphany while channel surfing. There's the notion that good and beautiful things can be found even in the most unexpected places.
It's about relationships, sensitivity, and compassion. When Rinku's mother weeps on the eve before her son's departure for America, she tells Bernstein to "take care of my son." Bernstein, clueless, replies, "Sure, he'll have lots of fun in L.A." She's thinking love and nurture; he's thinking wine and women and living it up, and that they'll be fine on their own. (He puts them up in a local hotel their first night; it's a disaster, and they end up crashing in Bernstein's bachelor pad, to his chagrin . . . but ultimately, to his benefit.)