Well, no joke, it is sorta true — that this is not a natural true-story film but rather one concocted by a producer or a guy with a pitch.
You can read its DNA in every frame. And yet … thanks to a savvy creative team and the unstoppable express that is Jon Hamm these days — throw in an embarrassingly good supporting cast of players — the movie plays like a million bucks.
Here’s the pitch: First, it is a true story. A one-time hot-shot sports agent named JB Bernstein found himself pretty much client-less after opening his own shop. In 2007, in real desperation, he hatched a truly screwy scheme: He went off to India and created a reality TV show to find promising baseball pitchers in the land of cricket.
Out of 1.2 billion people, you’re bound to find a few boys who can throw a fastball, right?
Well, not really. But he did come back with two lads with potential million-dollar arms, put them up in his house and hired a USC pitching coach to teach them in which direction to throw a baseball.
As dicey as this sounds as a career “Hail Mary,” it sounds equally as dicey as a Disney-produced comedy. It lacks for a socko ending — spoiler alert, neither one wins a World Series game — and it feels pretty marginal even as a feel-good sports story.
But look who came aboard: Director Craig Gillespie, who once made a superb comedy out of material much more dicey in “Lars and the Real Girl,” and a writer (not to mention actor and director), Tom McCarthy, who has all sorts of amazing credits to his name including “The Station Agent” and “Up.”
The film never completely escapes its assembly-line genesis — take a bit from ”The Rookie,” then throw in “Invincible” and “The Bad News Bears,” etc. — but if you go along with this story that really did happen, you’ll enjoy every minute.
Hamm is, of course, Bernstein and he’s been around LA-LA-Land long enough to know how to make an agent seem seedy, desperate and smooth all at once. His is a delicious anti-hero and the only surprise here is that the real JB allowed such an unvarnished portrait.
(An ex-sports agent I know turned down a studio deal to fictionalize his no-holds-barred memoir when he couldn’t control how he would be portrayed on screen.)
One could complain Alan Arkin is reprising so many other roles of his as the “irascible” retired baseball scout who joins JB on his quest. But since this is always so much fun to watch, why complain? He has added a new wrinkle though — the guy falls asleep at the drop of a baseball cap.
The India sequences roam around the subcontinent from Mumbai to Lucknow and then Agra (the latter presumably because no American film shot in India can fail to include a shot of the Taj Mahal). These are extremely colorful and catch the boisterous blend of color, music, infuriating traffic and high drama that is modern India.
Oddly the film never quite follows through on the TV show concept: You see only a succession of tryouts that serve to demonstrate how meager JB’s prospects truly are. But no TV show.
The two contenders JB eventually returns to L.A. with are Rinku Singh (“Life of Pi’s” Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire’s” Madhur Mittal), a pair of 18-year-olds who know nothing about baseball and, as it turns out, hate cricket.
The cast now expands to include JB’s sexy but distrustful backyard tenant Brenda, played by the effervescent Lake Bell — a tenant any bachelor would welcome — Bill Paxton as pitching coach and ex-big leaguer Tom House and Aasif Mandvi (“The Daily Show”) continues as JB’s pragmatic business partner.
The film has two fish-out-of-water situations with our gringo sports guys navigating India and the Indian youths from small villages trying to understand L.A. or for that matter the modern world including elevators.
The drama in this second stage predictably comes down to the workaholic agent forgetting that his charges are still teenagers lost in a new world in his relentless drive to polish their nascent skills. And Brenda of course, is always there to lend an ear to the lads and give JB a mouth-full about how to act like a human being.
Will the boys get a contract? Will JB become a human being? Will he and Brenda hook up? Well, no spoilers but this is a Disney film so you figure it out. Remember, other than the Brenda subplot — I can’t vouch for its veracity — all of this really did happen.
Opens: May 16, 2014 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: Mayhem Pictures, Roth Films
Cast: Jon Hamm, Suraj Sharma, Madhur Mittal, Alan Arkin, Lake Bell, Bill Paxton, Aasif Mandvi, Pitobash
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriter: Tom McCarthy
Producers: Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray, Joe Roth
Executive producers: Palak Patel, Kevin Halloran, Bill Simmons, Connor Schell
Director of photography: Gyula Pados
Production designer: Barry Robison
Music: A. R. Rahman
Costume designer: Kirston Leigh Mann
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Rated PG, 125 minutes