You can’t talk about a movie involving someone stealing from the rich to give to the poor without making Robin Hood jokes, and you can’t talk about a movie involving poor Indian kids making it big without making Slumdog jokes. I’m sorry, it’s in the bylaws of writing headlines about movies.
The basic set up is that Jon Hamm is a down-on-his-luck sports agent, who just can’t seem to land clients because of big evil corporate sports agents. No one yells “show me the money”, but it’s implied. He’s got a crack staff of Aasif Mandvi and Allyn Rachel, who until I just fact-checked, I swore was the best friend from Suburgatory. Bored and drunk, Hamm flips back and forth late in the evening between a cricket game and Susan Boyle making Simon Cowell’s heart grow three sizes. Boom. One billion people. Untapped market. Untapped source of talent. So he pitches the idea of having a contest going city to city in India to find great cricketeers to retrain as pitchers. And best of all, the movie starts with those most ominous words ever to fade onto the screen: based on a true story.
At this point, the movie sounds absolutely terrible, a reject from Adam Sandler’s pile of scripts, right?
The thing is that it’s not. It’s a sweet movie that hits the right notes. Sure, it’s not breaking new ground here, but it’s sentimental without being saccharine. The descriptor “feel good” is basically code in movie reviews for “shows you so many puppies you want to kick one”, but it really is the best descriptor for this particular movie. It makes you feel good, makes you smile.
It’s populated by three-dimensional characters, even the smallest of whom feels well rounded and complete, each a protagonist in his or her own right. The film takes its subjects seriously and treats them with respect. The Indian characters are not mascots, not comic relief, not inanimate plot objects to create a stage for Don Draper to play Jerry Maguire with funny accented foreigners. Hell, the inspirational speech before the big climax? Jon Hamm doesn’t give it. The goofy Indian guy does, with tears in his eyes, and not a damned joke in sight. Did I well up a little? Yes. Because I own Field of Dreams, and I have a heart.
The movie spends most of the first half in India and most of the second half in America, giving it a dual set of fish-out-of-water premises. First, with Hamm navigating the subcontinent, and then the latter half with the two Indian prospects training in America. And the first half does the weirdest thing for a PG movie made by Disney and set in another country. It treats that country with respect and lingering camera glances at the places and people without treating them as a series of set pieces for either jokes or very special learning experiences.
I’ve always loved baseball movies for the way they can get under our skins with layers of metaphor. But like good baseball movies, this is never really a film about baseball. It’s a story about a guy who’s mostly a jerk learning that he doesn’t want to be, because he’s stumbled across people who need him. Most of us don’t really grow up until we find people like that and realize that we care more about what happens to them than to what happens to the plan we had for ourselves. That might be when you hold your son the first time, might be when you realized you loved his mother, might be when you look around a trench at your comrades, might be when you tell your boss you’ll quit before you fire any of your staff. It might be when you tell your investors that you’re going to do right by two kids from India whether they pull their money or not.
It’s not Ray plowing under his corn for a baseball field, but it’s good nonetheless, and worth the watching if you’ve got a soft spot for old mitts and scuffed baseballs.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.