Million Dollar Baby
Dir.: Clint Eastwood
PG-13, 137 min.
Opening Jan. 28
Calling a movie "overrated" can be a dangerous game, as New York Times critic A.O. Scott learned recently when he argued that year-end awards favorite Sideways owes its reputation to critics who feel flattered by the portrait of a heroic aesthete. Defensive colleagues have grumbled at Scott, but if any of them wanted to go on the offensive, they could ask what Scott sees in his favorite movie of the year, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. Even though it comes on the heels of Eastwood's decorated Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby started screening for critics in early December with little advance hype, aside from rough details about the premise: Eastwood plays a grizzled boxing trainer who takes on a female boxer, played by Hilary Swank. And given that an Eastwood-directed picture can just as easily turn out to be Space Cowboys as Unforgiven, those privileged first viewers must've been easily knocked out by Million Dollar Baby's relaxed pace, artfully muted look and twisty plot.
All those elements make Million Dollar Baby good. Tom Stern's stark cinematographyall key lights and inky shadowaccentuates the story's sweaty gyms and gamy neighborhoods. Eastwood's feel for small human moments brings the most out of the scenes where his perpetually grouchy Frankie Dunn puts up with Swank's ever-optimistic Maggie Fitzgerald, or when he bickers amiably with his right-hand man Eddie Dupris (played by Morgan Freeman, who also provides the pulpy narration). Even the movie's tone, which shifts from earthy sports drama to heightened melodrama, doesn't seem too out of control for Eastwood, who showed with Mystic River that he can handle operatic emotional sweep.
But early claims for Million Dollar Baby's greatness seem a bit blindered and maybejust maybeinfluenced by a thrill of discovery that subsequent viewers aren't going to have. At the least, the movie's champions largely ignore its most glaring flaws, like screenwriter Paul Haggis' tendency to fill in the background with one-dimensional characters and odd tangents. For both rolled into one, nothing breaks the movie's rhythm like Jay Baruchel's mildly retarded, delusional would-be boxer Danger, whose mid-film moment of drama doesn't justify all his scenes of awkward comic relief. Also, more than once the movie slips into tones of broad outrage, as when Maggie's trailer trash family shows up and starts demanding money from a daughter they've never appreciated. Even for a film that at times apes Douglas Sirk, the scenes with Maggie's family are over-the-top and distractingly sour.
Which is a shame, because about two-thirds of Million Dollar Baby is as taut and poignant as the A.O. Scotts of the world insist. Just as Eastwood's masterpiece Unforgiven made plain but deep points about the American fascination with violence, so Million Dollar Baby studies the contradictions of Christianity through the framework of a sport where, as Freeman mutters more than once, "everything is backwards." For Eastwood's Frankie Dunn, winning a fight matters less than boxing properly. He's bollixed by the fact that a boxer has to punch, since dropping the hands means exposing the face, and he regularly warns his charges that if they get too good, no one will want to fight them. No wonder he spends so much time in church, grilling the priest about the viability of Christ's "you have to lose to win" theology.
But despite a haunting final twist (and a doubly haunting final shot), Million Dollar Baby never gets where it wants to go, as Haggis and Eastwood are sidetracked by extraneous characters and muddled crises of conscience. I watched the movie a second time to see if I could sort out what it was trying to say, and found no revelations. The good scenes were still good, and the awful still awful.
I've taken a second look at Sideways, too, and it's still a charming human comedy that deserves to be on Top 10 lists, if not necessarily at the top. And I recently made a second pass through Martin Scorsese's The Aviatora movie with cracks as deep as Million Dollar Baby's, but with much higher highs, and with a sense of ambition and scope that makes Eastwood's solid little potboiler look like a made-for-TV movie. Come awards nights, in head-to-head action, I know which puncher I'm backing.
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