Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Spoiler Experiment pt. 2: Million Dollar Arm

Spoiler Experiment pt. 1: Draft Day

Million Dollar Arm
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica NY

I first watched the trailer for Million Dollar Arm sometime in late January/early February, and while I knew this movie would serve well as the "spoiler" movie in my Spoiler Experiment - i.e., the movie I'd learn everything about in advance - I have to admit it didn't exactly excite me. 

Like my "blind" movie, Draft Day - the one I went into knowing almost nothing about - it's about a middle-aged sports businessman searching for new talent through unconventional means, which is why I chose to pair them for this experiment, but it's also a Disney movie, based on a true story, so I knew it would also be a safe, middle-of-the-road, unchallenging piece of cinema. (Not that I thought Draft Day would be the Last Year at Marienbad of sports movies.) Basically I was going for as similar an experience as possible.

I did a Google search on "Hamm million dollar arm" and bookmarked the page for easy access, and I went back to it periodically over the preceding three and a half months, as more information about the movie became available. I read and watched interview after interview with star Jon Hamm. I watched every preview clip available. I read about the real Rinku Singh and Dinesh Pital, the two Indian kids who won J.B. Bernstein's baseball reality-show contest to get a major league tryout (and win money). And I read many advance reviews of the movie. 

Because the film is based on real events, I didn't expect anything that could truly be considered spoilers: if Singh and Pital didn't win the contest and get their tryout, there'd be no movie. Still, I followed through on my intentions and hoped the movie wouldn't be as by-the-numbers as the trailer made it look like. Over time, I found myself getting caught up in the athletes' story and even began looking forward to the movie at one point, if for no other reason than to see their story dramatized.

Trolling online for advance knowledge about Arm almost felt like a job in itself at times. To deliberately seek out information about a movie far above and beyond the usual basic info I get on a daily basis from my favorite movie sites felt odd. After awhile, I kept getting similar sound bites in every interview, and I didn't feel like I was learning anything that new (except how tiring promotion must be for celebrities). This constant search for new information, new stills, new film clips, felt tedious after awhile, and I suspect the reason why was that as interested as I kinda sorta was in the film, I didn't have a passion for it... and there was no way I could work one up.

When J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek film was announced, I found a website dedicated to news and info about it and followed it religiously. While I was careful to not learn too much about the plot of the film, I went back there again and again, every day, often more than once per day, to read interviews, learn about casting, look at stills from the film, etc. I don't normally do this for most movies, but as you know by now, I'm a Trekkie. Trolling for info didn't feel like a job in that case. Still, like I said, as much stuff as I learned, I deliberately avoided plot details beyond the bare bones. 

With Arm, I didn't feel like knowing the plot in advance made a major difference, partly because it's inspired by actual events, but also because it was such a formulaic movie. One review I read stated that it should've been told from Singh and Pital's perspective, and I agree. Bernstein's "arc," such as it was, isn't as compelling as theirs, although redemption for him does come very late in the film. While we do get to see how Singh and Pital's participation in the contest and their subsequent trip to America impacts their families and their communities, there's more that could've been mined there, story-wise... but no, once again Hollywood has to rely on a white star to guide its viewers through a foreign culture...

... which led me to think about the cultural implications of the whole MDA enterprise. I realize that in the 21st century, technology has shrunken the world and made all of us more interconnected than ever before, but there's something about America once again reaching out to other countries and trying to make them more like us that rubs me the wrong way a little, especially when it's less about sharing our culture with others and more about making money. The way Hamm pitches MDA as being about making a billion new fans out of cricket-loving Indians has a vaguely imperial ring to it, as if he were a European colonizer conquering Native Americans, or a Christian missionary bringing Jesus to the "heathens" of Africa.

Maybe other Indians will grow up dreaming of being the next Singh or Pital, but are they aware of how long the odds are of even getting drafted by a professional team, much less making it out of the minors and into the big league, much less being able to sustain a career (never mind the odds on being a star)? This isn't like African-Americans seeking to enter a sport they've grown up with all their lives but were denied entry because of systemic prejudice. Indians are being sold a dream, but it's someone else's dream, built on a foundation of profit for the first world culture selling that dream - maybe not in the short term, but certainly over the long term. (Bernstein, or somebody, says in the movie that he expects an Indian to play in the majors one day as a result of MDA.)

Despite all of this, I can't deny that Arm has some appeal. Lake Bell is charming, in a Sandra Bullock kind of way. A.R. Rahman's score is great. And the young Indian actors Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal get to talk in Hindi as well as English, which is significant. I hope those two continue to get work. I would say both this and Draft Day are about equal in terms of quality, maybe with a slight edge to Draft Day. Between these two and Moneyball (and to a lesser extent, 42), sports movies featuring businessmen seem to be riding a bit of a trend, but I wouldn't wanna see too much of them. I'd rather get back to the action on the playing field.

The tiny audience I saw Arm with seemed to love it. They laughed at the funny parts, exhorted or criticized the characters in places, and really got caught up in the story. I couldn't tell if they were sports fans or not, but it didn't seem to matter. I didn't laugh at the funny parts. Like Draft Day, I was a bit unsure if this was a comedy with dramatic moments or a drama with comedic moments. Based on the audience's reaction, I'd guess the former, but I'd rather not get hung up on genre classifications.

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