From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Million Dollar Baby (2004) Director - Clint Eastwood; Starring - Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman; Screenplay - Paul Haggis from stories by F.X. Toole; Rated PG13 for violence, language, and mature thematic elements; trailer here.

All things being equal, I consider myself a bit of a boxing fan. I don't actively look forward to matches or go out of my way to watch one. But if boxing is on TV, I'll watch it if it's a good fight. The violence contained within boxing for me has always danced on the edge between high drama and primal brutality, usually falling more towards the latter.

Coming from that perspective, for me there will always be two boxing movies that bear the standard for all boxing movies: Rocky and Raging Bull. Rocky captured the true spirit of rooting for the underdog along with the thematic ideals of the American Dream. A relative nobody has the chance of a lifetime to be the best in the world. Even in failure (or rather an absence of success since he fights to a draw) he is a true winner. The audience loves Rocky for it.

Raging Bull by contrast put an all too human face on the former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta. LaMotta is no hero. He is a seriously flawed human being. The movie is at times brutal, vicious, sordid. It is the seamy underbelly of the sport that Rocky never hints at but that even non-boxing fans are familiar with through the exploits of characters like Don King today.

Small wonder then that when director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Paul Haggis try to fuse the essence of those two movies into Million Dollar Baby, the offspring is about what one would expect from that kind of mating: a bit ugly, very awkward, but bluntly compelling at times.

Eastwood also stars in the movie as Frankie Dunn, a grizzled long time boxing trainer. He owns a decrepit gym where he has found the fighters he's trained over the years. No fighter stays long with Frankie, though. Every time a boxer of promise gets close to a chance at a title with Frankie, they leave him because he never seems to have the nerve to try and take the next step. He keeps writing it off to the boxer "not being ready yet". The only boxer who's stayed with him is Eddie (Morgan Freeman), long since retired and out of the game having lost sight in one eye. Eddie helps Frankie run the gym and looks out for more boxing talent when he can.

Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). Maggie is a waitress who's lived her whole life on the wrong side of the tracks. She freely admits she came from nothing and knows people expect her to amount to the same. The only thing she seems to find any joy in is boxing. She hopes that Frankie might take her under his wing and make her a championship caliber boxer.

Frankie is reluctant at first. Having just been dumped by another boxer on his way to the title, it might be that Frankie thinks he just doesn't have it in him. Women's boxing is also a relatively new field. Frankie as a boxing traditionalist doesn't seem to see the role for women in boxing. At 31, Maggie is more than a bit old to just be starting out as a boxer. However, Eddie convinces Frankie that Maggie had talent. So Frankie takes a chance that leads both he and Maggie to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Swank really dominates this movie as Maggie. I recall reading in a column by Peter King of Sports Illustrated the observation that between this movie and Boys Don't Cry, Swank has pulled down two roles in five years that most actresses can only dream of in a lifetime. She makes the most of the opportunity to play Maggie. She looks like she could seriously kick someone's ass. Even though the boxing in the movie itself is a bit cartoonish and overdramatic, Swank takes the activity very seriously. Even given some tough competition I think she's got to be the leading contender to take down her second Best Actress Oscar.

The rest of the film is more problematic for me. Eastwood and Freeman are serviceable in their roles, but the characters are fairly stock in my opinion. Some attempt to give Frankie depth in the form of a couple of subplots falls pretty flat. There's a subplot involving a never seen daughter that Frankie is estranged from. The reasons for this estrangement are never revealed, but they're largely irrelevant since it's obvious from the get go that Maggie is going to fall into the surrogate daughter role.

Then there's a subplot involving his supposed questioning of his faith as a dyed in the wool Catholic. This particular aspect of script seemed really half baked to me. It's played for laughs in the only glimpses we get at it, which makes a true question of faith that Frankie has during the last third of the film seem more than a bit hollow to me.

Freeman's Eddie and the rest of the supporting cast are more than just stock, and this is one of the problems I have with this film getting the accolades that it is. Maggie's family is not just white trash. They're the kind of white trash that would make people on Jerry Springer seem almost moderate by comparison. The women's champion practically screams "EVIL!!! BAD!!!" at you to the point of absurdity. Freeman's Eddie has the wisdom of a grizzled vet that seems almost satirical when laid against the subtlety of his work in something like The Shawshank Redemption.

The script itself compounds the generic feel of the supporting cast by playing on cliche the whole way through. When Maggie first asks Frankie to train her, she mentions that some people have said she's pretty tough. Eastwood's signature gravely growl comes back, "Girly, tough ain't enough." It's got to be one of the cheesiest lines I've heard in a Best Picture contender since Leo DiCaprio was "King of the world" in Titanic. It only spirals downward from there.

When the movie moves from the underdog story to the seamy side of boxing, the careful orchestration falls apart. The last third of the movie plays like a bad made-for-TV "Disease of the Week" movie. I'll refrain from discussing it here further, as the ending has gotten some play in the news as a minor controversy has sprouted from the way the film ends (Click the link only if you don't mind knowing how the movie ends). The brouhaha over the ending made me realize what the biggest issue I have with the whole film is. I feel like the entire thing might well be the most blatantly manipulative movie I've seen in some time. I heard many sniffles and catching of breath in the auditorium behind me that tells me this movie strikes an emotional chord in a fair number of people. I think it failed to achieve that with me because I felt actively the whole way through like I was being pushed to that end. I don't particularly care for films to push me around that overtly.

In the end I thought that this was a good movie, but hardly great. The fact that I think it is trying too hard and ultimately overreaches towards the emotional ending cost it a lot of points in my eyes. Maybe I've become too cynical after seeing so many movies over the course of my life. But I personal feel that a movie that gets me to the same point without my being aware of how it gets me there deserves a lot more consideration than this one does.

Best Picture Odds: As much as it depresses me to write this, this is exactly the kind of movie that tends to draw the Oscar voters. I think were this any other year, or Eastwood competing with anyone other than Martin Scorsese that he'd have a real lock at taking home another Oscar to pair with the one he won for Unforgiven. As it stands, it wouldn't shock me too much to see this movie take it home, but even having not yet seen The Aviator, I have to guess that this is Martin's year. We'll lay the odds at 5-1 in favor of the Million Dollar Baby.