Million Dollar Baby
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

Occasionally, when reviewers write about an individual movie, the reactions are so totally opposed it's as if they saw two totally different movies. One group might say the movie is great, profound, and sublime. The other group might say the movie is trite and hackneyed. I find myself in a similar situation with Million Dollar Baby. However, I'm in a very small, almost-nonexistent group that struggles with this movie.

I missed the movie on its original round of screenings in December. I had to wait until a January screening. By this time, the accolades had already started rolling in from far and wide, including awards for best picture, best director, and best actress from various organizations. So when I attended the mid January screening, in advance of the movie going from a limited release to a wide release, I went with great expectations. But the movie I encountered was a great disappointment.

As I watched Million Dollar Baby, I was reminded of Clint Eastwood's True Crime, an insignificant movie in his remarkably significant directorial career. True Crime is an overly familiar yarn about a journalist attempting to stop an execution. He digs up information that will exonerate a man accused of murder, but the execution in imminent. He must get the information into the hands of the governor or an innocent man will be executed. This is an overly familiar story, built on amazing coincidences and absurd action sequences--tired material that the filmmakers had failed to enliven in any meaningful way. Many critics would agree with this assessment. However, other critics liked the movie. So there was a disagreement of opinion here, but the two camps were well represented.

With Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood trudges into a story that's just as familiar as True Crime. It's a boxing movie, without doubt the most over-represented sport on the silver screen. Boxing tends to work well on film because it's relatively simple. Just two people slugging it out. And this allows boxing to work as a clear metaphor for human endeavor, usually of a dog-eat-dog variety with blue-collar types struggling to succeed against overwhelming odds. We've seen this story many times--Body and Soul, Champion, The Champ, Fat City, Raging Bull, Rocky, etc. And every time a new boxing movie comes along it's placed in the unenviable position of needing to justify why this terrain is worth revisiting yet again. Are there any new developments that can breathe life into the clichéd situations and characterizations? Million Dollar Baby does indeed contain some new twists, such as casting a woman as the boxer. In addition, the movie gives her situation some added dynamics by showing how the boxer's ungrateful family reacts to her success (which hints at the source of her determination to succeed), and the movie gives the boxing manager a mysterious non-relationship with his own daughter (which hints at the source of his begrudging attachment to his female boxer, who may be serving as a surrogate daughter).

The movie's exterior conflict is Maggie's rise to the top of the boxing world and the impending fight against the dirtiest fighter in all of boxing. For me, this development was as convincing as Rocky's fights against the increasingly despicable villains in the Rocky sequels. Maggie can't just meet a tough competitor; she must meet a nasty boxer who flagrantly breaks the rules, even slugging downed, unprotected boxers as they struggle to rise from the canvas. Here the movie goes way over the top with patently phony and manipulative developments meant to demonize the boxer and elicit our sympathy for poor Maggie. But the movie doesn't need such cheap tactics. The same story could have been told with a more-human/less-demonic foe. We already like Maggie and are concerned about her welfare and cringe when she gets hit in regular boxing matches. The demonizing doesn't stop here: Maggie's family becomes a group of opportunistic jackals waiting to take advantage of Maggie. They have no redeeming qualities. This conflict is supposed to provide some of Maggie's inner fire and give a root cause for her fiery determination to succeed as a boxer. But the filmmakers hate Maggie's white trash relatives so intensely that they allow no humanity to creep into this conflict. These relatives sneer and grin maliciously as Maggie's situation turns from dreadful to hopeless. The movie doesn't need such extremes of behavior. They lead to a manipulative moment of satisfaction late in the movie when Maggie can exert her will against her relatives and the audience finally gets something to cheer about.

While Million Dollar Baby strives for moral complexity, I found it to be simplistic, highlighting its villains with day-glow colors and elevating Maggie to near sainthood. Maggie's always spunky and full of life, an inspiration to everyone she meets. While many people are talking about an Academy Award for Hilary Swank's performance as Maggie, I find it to be a rather one-note affair, with little of the depth displayed in her Academy Award-winning performance in Boys Don't Cry.

So what's going on here? Looking for an answer, I turned to the F.X. Toole short story upon which the movie is based, also titled "Million Dollar Baby." Toole tells the story in spare language. Reviewers say he's Hemingway-esque. He tells you just what you need to know and nothing more, using an economy of language that's totally foreign to filmmakers. By its nature, a single frame of a movie tells you so much more than the written word can ever hope to convey. But a photograph can also tell you much that is irrelevant. Literature is so very controlled. It tells you only what you need and nothing more, and that's one of the reasons that Toole's short story (short? Well, it's 40 pages long) works so well. His pared-down, unadorned, blunt style can put words into Maggie's mouth--"What's a matter, Boss?"--and we're free to insert our own idea of Maggie. But in a movie, we see the woman's face, we see her body language, we see her fists pounding a speed bag, we see her eternally cheery attitude, and we see her disgraces--such as the leftover streak she flinches from a plate while bussing a table. "It's for my dog," she says to a cafe customer, but we know that's not true. We see her sparsely furnished apartment; her asceticism is worthy of a monk. These developments have the effect of garnishing the novel's sparseness with irrelevancies and manipulations. Some can't be avoided. We must see Maggie in order for a movie to exist. But do we need a leftover scrap of steak? Do we need an eternally cheerful demeanor? Do we need the asceticism? This is about the choices that the filmmakers make. And for me, the filmmakers continually made choices that wring the situations of too much emotion and cause the movie to teeter toward bathos.

Meanwhile, Eastwood's Frankie is given a background that doesn't exist in the short story. Frankie goes to Mass everyday, where he taunts the priest. The priest understands what's going on. He recognizes the tremendous guilt that Frankie must be carrying that would send him to Mass everyday. The movie drops hints about this guilt. It involves Frankie's daughter who won't answer her father's letters. Each week another letter--with "return to sender" written across the envelope--is added to Frankie's shoebox, which is now overflowing with letters. Eastwood the director makes sure we see this shoebox. He wants us to feel the weight of Frankie's guilt. But the movie never goes another step and reveals the source of this guilt. We can only make guesses. Did he abuse her? Did he abuse her mother? Or was he simply too dictatorial as a father and she finally gave up on him as a father? We don't know. This conflict the movie leaves a mystery--because here the mystery is more evocative when it remains in shadow. A handful of possibilities exist, and they're all ugly. From Frankie's perspective, Million Dollar Baby is all about finding absolution. Not the kind of absolution that's bestowed upon you by organized religion, but a personal absolution that comes from deep within after you've come to grips with the life you've led and the things that you've done. The movie pulls off Frankie's guilt much better than Maggie's asceticism. This is one of the movie's greatest strengths--it's refusal to reduce Frankie's condition to a simple A+B=C equation.

Eastwood is excellent as the boxing coach. This might be one of his best performances. But Morgan Freeman is possibly even better as the ex-boxer who now earns a living as the live-in custodian of Frankie's Hit Pit gymnasium. Both Eastwood and Freeman are in tune with the sparseness of Toole's prose. (Freeman's character does not exist in the short story.) But even here, the movie's screenplay devises mentor-ly wisdom as cornball as Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars ("Remember, Luke, the Force!"). Frankie's wisdom isn't just wise and insightful, it can be used to destroy another fighter, as if boxing is simply a matter of finding your opponent's Achilles' heal--then it's "Game Over."

I loved Unforgiven and its dark vision of frontier justice, but Million Dollar Baby is further evidence that Eastwood's films largely sink or swim on the quality of their screenplays. Eastwood approaches the material with a simple and straightforward style, but here the material wallows in self-flagellation and judgmental attitudes. I found the movie to be painful to watch.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Warner Bros. Pictures
Movie Web site: Million Dollar Baby



Photos: © 2004 Warner Bros. Pictures. All rights reserved.