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updated: 5/15/2014 3:30 PM

Formula sports underdog drama throws a narrative curve ball

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  • A desperate sports agent (Jon Hamm), left, goes to India to find baseball talent with a translator (Pitobash), far right, and two recruits (Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma) in "Million Dollar Arm."

    A desperate sports agent (Jon Hamm), left, goes to India to find baseball talent with a translator (Pitobash), far right, and two recruits (Madhur Mittal and Suraj Sharma) in "Million Dollar Arm."

  • Video: "Million Dollar Arm"


The advertising slogan to Walt Disney's new baseball drama "Million Dollar Arm" states, "Sometimes to win, you have to change the game."

You get a sense that director Craig Gillespie really tries to do this as he struggles to break free of the formula straitjacket required for a standard Disney underdog sports drama.

In lesser hands, "Million Dollar Arm" could easily have crossed into another one of those fact-based "white savior" dramas where the white protagonist saves minority members from lesser lives by giving them opportunities, education and protection and, in effect, taking credit for their accomplishments.

"Million Dollar Arm," written by Tom McCarthy, is too smart for that.

It barely focuses on its sketchy minority characters -- two young men from India intensely trained to become fastball pitchers for major league baseball.

Like Cameron's Crowe's far riskier "Jerry Maguire," McCarthy's story prefers to profile its flawed, underdog main character, another white, single sports agent who opts to go independent, then treads deep financial waters while gambling everything on his only (here, two) clients.

"Mad Men" star Jon Hamm portrays JB Bernstein, a self-centered, all-business agent who doesn't let women or other distractions slow down his deals. After a run of bad luck, his company might fold if he and his partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi) don't snare a new super client soon.

One night while watching television, JB experiences an epiphany by flipping between Susan Boyle's life-changing audition on "Britain's Got Talent" and a cricket match.

If JB can find some super baseball players from India, that would open the American sport to a market worth a billion customers.

With backing from a sourpuss Asian capitalist named Mr. Chang (Tzi Ma), JB heads to India where he meets up with a comically appreciative guide and translator Amit (Bollywood actor Pitobash) and a comically crusty old American talent scout named Ray (Alan Arkin).

A highly publicized national search for a "million dollar arm" finally nets two strong 18-year-old prospects: Rinku ("Life of Pi" star Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal, from "Slumdog Millionaire").

Back in the States, legendary USC coach Tom House (played with grounded gravitas by Bill Paxton) trains the lads to be super pitchers, but the clock proves to be an enemy as Rinku and Dinesh can't seem to rally.

The problem, as laid out by Brenda (Lake Bell), the pretty doctor-in-training next door, is that JB isn't being nice or supportive to his players after ripping them away from their homes, friends and families. He doesn't get it.

At about this time, most underdog sports dramas would lapse into a rendition of "You Gotta Have Heart" from "Damn Yankees."

Wisely, Gillespie (who directed the edgy romance "Lars and the Real Girl") sidesteps easy sentiment and lets his actors -- especially Hamm and Paxton -- effortlessly lift this audience-pleasing, formula material into something a little richer and real.

"Million Dollar Arm" comes riddled with standard verbal clichés ("That looks awesome!" "That's what I'm talking about!" "Trust me!" "I can't do that!"). In one scene, Mr. Chang inexplicably eats a meal by himself while conducting business with JB, a cliched setup usually reserved for stereotypical villains.

This movie is box-office safe, a comfortable, predictable and mildly uplifting story given just enough spin and speed to get it across the plate.

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