Walt Disney Studios via Everett Collection
Million Dollar Arm takes a lot for granted when it comes to its audience. It assumes that anyone paying to see this film must care about baseball. Odds are it's right — you've got to have some motivating factor beyond Jon Hamm's jawline. But it assumes you care enough that it doesn't matter how little its characters seem to. We see so few instances involving any carnal appreciation for the game throughout the bulk of the picture, least of all from cranky and materialistic sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Hamm), that when the final act treats us to its coup de grâce tearjerkers we can't help but feel like we're being thrown one hell of a curveball.
But that isn't the worst of the film's assumptions. As a last ditch effort to find a ringer both talented and bankable enough to save his career, J.B. throws caution to the wind and high tails it to India on a scouting mission for strong-armed cricket bowlers. So casually racist that you'd think this film takes place long before 2008, J.B. hates everything about cricket (...why?) and India on the whole, submitting immediately to the idea that he's in a third-rate wasteland where nothing can get done, nobody knows anything, and any young boy would be elated to get out of dodge. And Million Dollar Arm has no interest in proving him wrong: The film never second-guesses (and assumes we won't either) the notion that Big Leagues hopefuls Dinesh (Madhur Mittal) and Rinku (Suraj Sharma) would be happier and better off in America. It assumes we won't take any issue with the idea that two boys from India must have never seen an elevator, a television, or a moment of good fortune. Sure, they might not have... but it's as if Million Dollar Arm expects us to believe there is no other option when a wide-eyed Sharma wanders through a Californian hotel like Wall-E exploring the starliner.
Walt Disney Studios via Everett Collection
The film gives itself so much regrettable leeway while carting through the necessary points of its true story, jumping from the laughable inception of J.B.'s plan to move his search overseas to the languid introduction of the two boys (neither of whom is given any backstory) and their entry into the MLB's consideration. But scattered throughout are beats and scenes that seem ripped from a different script entirely — J.B.'s gradual appreciation of Dinesh, Rinku, and much bemoaned translator, documentarian, and aspiring baseball coach Amit (Pitobash Tripathy) as his surrogate family. Of course the vast majority of his emotional realizations come at the behest of his beautiful, kooky tenant Brenda (Lake Bell), but the kids are usually at least nearby.
It's shocking how much the personal material does to salvage Million Dollar Arm, though. J.B.'s relationship with Dinesh, Rinku, and Amit, and — perhaps more importantly — the relationships between Dinesh, Rinku, and Amit themselves are funny, warm, and flavorful enough to give this otherwise faceless movie some real character. Secondary players Bill Paxton and Alan Arkin do little to surprise, playing disgruntled and unconscious respectively, but there's a reason these guys are always called on to do the same thing. And if that's not enough for you, Aasif Mandvi's kids keep throwing up. It plays both like an extended metaphor about the hidden joys in family life and a non sequitur gag from Tomcats. Take your pick.
Million Dollar Arm's charming points are strong enough to distract at times from its boisterous misgivings, but they peer through in the end. Not every baseball movie needs hair-tustling and eye-welling. Not every baseball movie warrants a Pride of the Yankees elegy about the glories of the diamond. But Million Dollar Arm wishes it was one of these movies (so much so that it actually rips the Lou Gehrig speech right out of Gary Cooper's mouth). Still, instead of building a story about the love of baseball or even about the magic of this story, Million Dollar Arm keeps all its genuine energy on a bunt: the story of some jackass who warms up to a couple of kids after a while. Not a bad play, but hardly the grand slam it was going for.
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This week, fans of Happy Endings are invited to take a trip back in time. We pay visit to a simpler era, one peppered with Scotty appearances and devoid of Dave/Alex romances. I’m speaking of course about mid-2012, from whence the latest episode of the ABC sitcom originated. See, amid the shuffling and rescheduling of Happy Endings’ second season, one wayward episode was doomed to oblivion, never reaching American broadcast during its allotted period of pertinence. But not wishing to let a perfectly good half-hour of television comedy go to waste, the network has opted to implant the ep in Season 3, landing it as the third new entry of 2013.
It’s not a terribly uncommon practice, but one that seldom goes off without a hitch these days. In-universe chronology is becoming more and more important a quality for episode management as overarching story is playing a greater role than it ever has among television comedies. But Happy Endings, as proven with the unqualified success of “KickBall 2: The Kickening” (titled as such not to indicate itself a sequel to a past episode, but entirely as a joke concerning events within this week’s show), is one of a dying breed.
Those not already aware of the existence of the long anticipated phenomenon that is this “sport”-themed episode might not even notice anything strange about the timeline. The only giveaway is an opening tag that indicates that Alex and Dave have not yet moved back in together (nor do they appear to be dating, although there is no explicit dialogue to call direct attention to this). Other than this, and an ostensible springtime or summertime setting, “Kickball 2” could easily take place one week following whatever the hell these crazy Chicagoans were up to last Tuesday. On Happy Endings, each week is a standalone adventure — sure, the show will occasionally guest cast a boyfriend for Penny, who’ll hang around for a few consecutive weeks. Or maybe attention will be called to Brad having recently lost his job or Jane having switched hers. But even newcomers to the show won’t be in wanting for more context upon these elements — offhand mentions are all you need to get caught right up.
Two weeks ago, we covered how Happy Endings models its internal structure (episode plots and jokes) after sitcom tradition, borrowing tropes and molding them into fresh, new magic. But the triumph of "KickBall 2"'s timelessness highlights the show's adherence to a dissipating attitude on television storytelling once upheld by each and every on-air sitcom (in the pre-Seinfeld times), and just how valuable an asset it is in the present day. It is so difficult to draw new viewers into the fandom of our television comedies of the utmost quality — those like Community, Girls, Parks and Recreation, and Veep, among others — with precedent warnings like, "You have to start from the beginning!" With a devotion to chronology being mandated in so many of today's sitcoms, it is a rare treat to find a show that is both brilliantly written and capable of being enjoyed from just about any point in the series on.
And so very enjoyable is "KickBall 2," not to mention so very silly. Alex signs the whole gang up for a kickball tournament, not knowing that her hyper-competitive sister Jane has already teamed up with a more athletically skilled troupe of mechanics (sparking some traumatic childhood memories of Jane selling out Alex for a spot onstage at a primate-themed children's program).
So, feisty Alex is left with her scruffy, perpetually inebriated self-appointed manager Max; a heels-wearing, just-in-it-to-meet-guys Penny; bunts-only Brad (they call him Bunt Cake); steroid-addict and all around weirdo Scotty; and Dave, who, thanks to the haunting guilt of having nailed Penny in the face during a past game of kickball, cannot, for the life of him, get on base. And it all plays out the way you might expect — Alex and Jane reconcile and unite, Dave gets over his phobia and kicks a conclusive line-drive (again, right into Penny's face), Brad branches out beyond his bunting fixation, Penny finds "true love" (in a star-gazing Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs, no less), and Scotty suffers the fate of intravenous drug abuse side effects. All in all, everybody has a happy ending. (Hey, wait a minute!)
[Photo Credit: ABC]
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