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True story serves up a home run for Mad Men star Hamm

Dir:

SPORTS TALE: Madhur Mittal as Dinesh and Suraj Sharma as Rinku, and top, Jon Hamm as JB and Lake Bell as Brenda.
SPORTS TALE: Madhur Mittal as Dinesh and Suraj Sharma as Rinku, and top, Jon Hamm as JB and Lake Bell as Brenda.

Craig Gillespie

With: Jon Hamm, Lake Bell, Aasif Mandvi

Runtime: 124 minutes

AT one point in this tale of sporting endeavour, characters are seen watching 1942's The Pride of the Yankees. The featured scene is the one where Gary Cooper, playing baseball legend Lou Gehrig, is declaring himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth, even though he is dying. As the camera pans from the TV screen to the tear-stained faces of DVD watchers in modern LA, we see the film has worked its melancholy magic again.

Million Dollar Arm is not a six hankie number like The Pride of the Yankees, but that is not to detract from its considerable charm. Just as Sam Wood's 1942 biopic, being a film about a good man in a world gone to the bad, was of its wartime day, so Craig Gillespie's drama is in step with modern sporting times. Its central hero, played by Mad Men's Jon Hamm, is an agent for heaven's sake, and the tale, based on a true story, takes place across continents and involves big money stakes, media hoopla, and the transfer of talent from the developing world to the West. While this could have led to a cynical movie, Million Dollar Arm turns out to have a heart almost as big as the one that beats in The Pride of the Yankees. Yes, it teeters dangerously close to schmaltz at times, but the sure hand of its director (who helmed the loveably left field Lars and the Real Girl) and writer Tom McCarthy (Up, The Visitor) pull it back just in time. If all that, plus Hamm ripping the bones out of his first lead in a major movie is not enough to make this your choice of viewing this weekend, there is also a joyously raucous soundtrack from AR Rahman of Slumdog Millionaire fame.

The film opens with agent JB Bernstein (Hamm) hustling to find clients after leaving a big agency. In this he is having about as much success as Jerry Maguire. His partner Aash (Aasif Mandvi) keeps telling him to get into cricket, but JB, taking what might be called a Scots attitude to the ball and wicket game, reckons cricket is the kind of sport that might have been created in an asylum.

Nevertheless, while channel surfing one night, JB comes across oor ain Susan Boyle, no less, delivering her show-stopping I Dreamed a Dream on Britain's Got Talent. A couple of channels later, the cricket is on. On goes a lightbulb: why not stage a talent competition in India, built around bowling, bring the winners to America to be trained in baseball, and have them try out for a major league team? It's a wizard wheeze, the art of being an agent in action, and JB thinks he is just the man to pull it off.

As with Don Draper, Hamm is able to take what could have been a flat, familiar character and give him plenty of intriguing angles. His JB is a charmer, a hustler, a man content to exist on the surface of life, slipping and out of relationships with ease. The last thing he wants is any real responsibility to tie him down.

Gillespie spends half the film in India, soaking up its landscape, majesty and chaos. In the main we get to know the place through the two young sportsmen JB finds, Rinku and Dinesh (Suraj Sharma, Life of Pi, and Madhur Mittal, Slumdog Millionaire), and the various fixers he employs. Together with ferociously grumpy talent scout Ray (Alan Arkin) and JB's doctor neighbour Brenda (the always terrific Lake Bell), a strange little family is being formed, one that will be tested by the move to LA and the try outs.

Though Hamm is the big name draw here, Gillespie gives everyone a shot with the bat, the two youngsters especially, and they rise to the occasion. With plenty of feeling, not too much in the way of baseball chat to bore a non-American audience, and some nicely judged humour, Gillespie's film proves a home run of a sports movie.

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