You can make a double feature about the commodification of unsuspecting foreigners this weekend, if you're living in one of the cities in which The Immigrant opens in limited release. Alongside Disney's Million Dollar Arm, which opens wider, the movie makes for a decent treatise on the mirage-like qualities of the American dream. They're both stories of people who come to the U.S. and are immediately exploited by unscrupulous Americans (who eventually feel bad about being such brutal capitalist beasts). They're very different movies that represent an unease with the myth of the country as a land of boundless and universal opportunity — but only one of them does this in the form of a feel-good sports underdog story.
That's not The Immigrant, the latest feature from James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), an American director who continues to be more famous in France, perhaps the film equivalent of being a musician who's big in Japan. A somber, gut-wrenching period drama set in 1921 New York, The Immigrant is the kind of movie that's usually saved for awards season, and features a pair of excellent performances that will unfortunately probably be forgotten by the beginning of the Oscar race. It's centered on a luminous Marion Cotillard as Ewa Cybulski, a Polish woman who arrives via Ellis Island. When her sister Magda is quarantined due to tuberculosis, and the uncle they were supposed to meet doesn't show, Ewa finds herself depending on the support of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a slippery entrepreneur who owns a disreputable theater/brothel, and who comes a little too readily to her side.
Ewa's an innocent, but she not a fool, and she's justifiably wary of what strings will turn out to be attached to Bruno's offers to give her a place to stay and help her reunite with her sister. But Ewa is stranded without options in a bustling but unforgiving city, and her ability to fight back fades as all other choices are taken from her. Bruno is exactly what she fears, but he's also more than that — an exploiter and a sentimentalist, capable of falling in love with Ewa while simultaneously serving as her pimp, leading her down a path of degradation and desperation. And when Jeremy Renner surfaces as Orlando, a magician who performs for the detainees on Ellis Island and who has a history with Bruno, he carries a promise of romance and rescue that also turns out to be more complicated than it first appears.
James Gray is Joaquin Phoenix's most frequent director, and the two have crafted a character of remarkable complexity in Bruno, who's despicable and tragic, pitiful and awful. The extent of his ruthlessness takes a while to become clear, but he's also capable of defensiveness that comes from a place of apparent emotional (if not justified) sincerity. "I don't want you to do this either," he says tenderly to Ewa as he's about to sell her into her first act of prostitution. "It's not my decision." He's a savvy user of the vulnerable and defenseless, but understands more than anyone the promise that's drawn them and everyone to the country. When he's parading his girls down by a Central Park underpass, he describes them as the fallen daughters of New York aristocracy, knowing that everyone loves the idea of high-end things being so easily within their grasp.
The hero of Million Dollar Arm, J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm), isn't the literal pimp that Bruno is, but he's also in the business of helping buy and sell people while taking his cut. He's a sports agent who, after unsuccessfully striking out on his own, dreams up a last-ditch plan to recruit fresh talent from India to try out for Major League Baseball. Making a deal with a U.S. investor, J.B. dreams up a competition in which he and a grumpy scout (Alan Arkin) travel around India looking for pitchers in a country in which cricket is the dominant sport. He's shilling a fairy tale, the promise of untried players getting their chance at becoming pros in America, but the reality is more cynical and financially driven. India is a giant market, and signing the first Indian player means potential international business and interest that's a lot more important than how good the guy in question actually is — or what happens to him.
Ably directed by Craig Gillespie (Fright Night), Million Dollar Arm is a Disney movie, and so it's all about uplift, but the (true) tale it tells isn't your conventional underdog one. When J.B. finds Rinku Singh (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh Patel (Madhur Mittal), two boys from a rural village, and totes them back with him to Los Angeles to be molded into acceptable players by coach Tom House (Bill Paxton), he's aware that it's the stunt that's important, not the people involved. The script, written by Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent), carries the requisite redemption for its slick protagonist, but allows that its story isn't one that fits into an expected arc. Rinku and Dinesh aren't household names in professional baseball, so the stakes aren't fame in that sense. No, what's at stake is how willing J.B. is to hang them out to dry once they leave India.
J.B. may be a more familiar screen type than Bruno, but he's also selling a promise of protection and success while his external goal is something else entirely, and Rinku and Dinesh are even more unworldly than Ewa. And having Jon Hamm, who's spent years as ultimate pitchman Don Draper in Mad Men, in the main role serves as a convenient shorthand for the man J.B. is when the film begins, even more than his sleek L.A. house or habit of dating models.
If The Immigrant hangs on how bad things will get for Ewa, Million Dollar Arm hinges on the gentler but still compelling question of whether or not its two Indian athletes will lose their innocence and their faith in the man they so look up to. It's a mainstream sports movie that's refreshingly matter-of-fact about the business side of its game, and about the part globalization plays in it — and The Immigrant is a historical film that doesn't shy away from the roughness of its era. Coming to America has never looked quite so chancy.