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'Million Dollar Arm' review: Baseball movie lobs softballs

Jon Hamm as JB Bernstein and Lake Bell

Jon Hamm as JB Bernstein and Lake Bell as Brenda in a scene from Walt Disney Pictures' "Million Dollar Arm." Credit: AP / Ron Phillips

In "Million Dollar Arm," two teenagers in India enter a reality television show created by a wealthy sports agent. The contest is baseball, a game they've never played, but the prize is a whopper: a chance to join a major league team in America.

"Million Dollar Arm" is based on a true story, but guess whose? Not that of Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal, of "Slumdog Millionaire") or Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma, "Life of Pi"), who give up everything they know for a new life in a strange country, but that of the sports agent, J.B. Bernstein. Played by Jon Hamm, retailoring his Don Draper role from "Mad Men," Bernstein is a likable if objectionable figure: the rich Westerner who learns valuable lessons from poor natives.

Rudyard Kipling couldn't have written a more heartwarming, blithely colonialist fairy tale than "Million Dollar Arm." Directed by Craig Gillespie from a feel-good script by Tom McCarthy ("The Visitor"), the movie is simultaneously offensive and endearing. It gapes at India like a friendly tourist, carts home its two souvenirs and then, in its awkward way, tries to find common ground between East and West.

Dinesh and Rinku may have hoped to find independence in America, but instead they've landed in a Disney family film -- and they're the children. Fascinated by elevators and romping through fancy hotels like a couple of Curious Georges, they're referred to as "kids," or treated as such, by everyone in the movie. Meanwhile, Bernstein plays the neglectful dad, leaving his charges to struggle through school (Bill Paxton plays pitching coach Tom House) while he's off courting the blinged-out football star Popo Vanuatu (Rey Maualuga, of the Cincinnati Bengals).

"They just need to see that you care," says Bernstein's casual girlfriend, Brenda. She's played with sharp intelligence by Lake Bell, but even Brenda seems destined to become a mommy figure. Filling in this glowing picture are Aasif Mandvi as Bernstein's colleague, Indian actor Pitobash as an eager-beaver translator and Alan Arkin, not exactly stretching as a crusty scout.

It's all a bit cringe-inducing, but what can you do? Like your beloved but slightly bigoted grandfather, "Million Dollar Arm" is so touchingly unaware of its problems that scolding it seems pointless.

PLOT A desperate sports agent scours India for baseball's next great pitcher. Based on a true story.

RATING PG (mild language and some suggestive content)

CAST Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal


BOTTOM LINE Blithely colonialist, though basically good-hearted. Hamm has charm, Bell adds bite and the whole thing passes muster despite its offenses.

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