Partly it's the granite chin, and the ever-so-slightly self-congratulatory grin just above it. Partly it's his signature role, the duplicitous hollow man Don Draper on "Mad Men," the role Jon Hamm has been fortunate enough to explore the past few years.
Whatever the factors, Hamm may always have to guard against a certain self-regard on camera, a mild-to-moderate case of peacock-itis. The actor, like many a well-known star before him, has the blessing and the sometime curse of the ridiculously attractive. The curse of the ridiculously attractive is one that crosses genders and, if the performer isn't careful — if the performer appears to be living, waiting, dying for the next close-up — ensnares performers all across the talent spectrum.
Hamm's talented, though, and has done all right in movies up until now, in supporting roles, often as the good-looking heel scuffing up the protagonist. In Disney's "Million Dollar Arm," a modest but heartening surprise, he steps up into a comfortable leading role, that of a canny sports agent who brings baseball to India and then brings a couple of promising teenage athletes to the strange and wondrous land of Southern California (filmed in Georgia, where director Craig Gillespie shot "Million Dollar Arm" when he wasn't on location in India).
The real-life entrepreneurial hustler J.B. Bernstein, played by Hamm, is no saint in this movie version. He's up against it; his hotshot lifestyle lacks the high-profile clients he needs to pay the bills, squire the models and wax the sports car. He's out for No. 1, and often treats those around him like No. 2.
In the crafty, humane hands of screenwriter Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed "The Visitor" and "Win Win," Bernstein has a few things to learn. This is the way these inspirational sports movies go, of course, but this is why "Million Dollar Arm" is worth seeing. Its wince-worthy moments, when people aren't treating other people the way they should be treated, feel honest and emerge naturally from the true-ish story.
Bernstein was one of the brainstormers behind a reality TV contest known as "The Million Dollar Arm." The winner and runner-up in the first round of the contest: Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, both new to baseball. They weren't even much into cricket. But they could throw. Leaving their homes and families for the first time, the young men traveled to Los Angeles and began training for a major league tryout.
The film combines factual characters with fictional ones and keeps the sentimental uplift to a refreshingly tactful minimum. Arriving in Mumbai for the big promotion and contest, which turns out to be an ad hoc scramble, Bernstein's the belligerent fish out of water. Back in the U.S., Rinku and Dinesh are the ones wondering where they've been plopped down with a map. They're more or less hung out to dry by an increasingly distracted and irritable Bernstein, even though he's their sponsor and cultural ambassador. Obstacles are surmounted, lessons are learned, and the actors are shrewd enough to make it all work, even when the last 20 minutes meander.
As Bernstein's tenant and eventual lover, Lake Bell is terrific, funny, truthful. She's improved every movie she has ever been in, and she has a way of interacting with everyone on screen that feels natural. Bill Paxton, Mr. Relaxation, has a few scenes as pitching coach Tom House. Alan Arkin makes tiny little comic mountains out of tinier comic molehills as a crusty, nap-prone scout. With winning panache, Aasif Mandvi plays Bernstein's partner in business, whose densely packed family life is the opposite of Bernstein's fastidiously self-centered single-guy existence.
They're not exactly benched by Bernstein's story, but one of the weaknesses of "Million Dollar Arm" is its occasional sidelining of the baseball hopefuls themselves. Suraj Sharma, from "Life of Pi," portrays Rinku; Madhur Mittal plays Dinesh. There are times in director Gillespie's film when you wish the movie really was about them primarily and Bernstein secondarily; once they start playing goo-goo-eyed matchmakers for their pal J.B., it's more than a little patronizing. McCarthy is following well-established story grooves here, but scene to scene, he allows the dialogue to breathe and reveal bits of character along with the more expedient bits of plot advancement. Like Disney's "Invincible" starring Mark Wahlberg, "Million Dollar Arm" has a way with corn, but it doesn't feel like one of "those" Disney movies. Even with some vocal distress following his recent surgery, Hamm shoulders the movie with ease.
"Million Dollar Arm" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for mild language and some suggestive content)
Running time: 2:04
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, RedEye