Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Million Dollar Baby

Despite my great admiration and respect for Clint Eastwood, I rarely get along with his films. Eastwood has a gift for visual minimalism and formalism, but the melodrama of his scripts creates an uneasy balance that, in all fairness, works. I don't know how he does it, but he pulls it off; however, just because they work does not make them masterpieces and, with one exception, I consider none of the films he's made this decade to be a classic.

Million Dollar Baby is not that exception. Working with a script from Paul "SERIOUS BUSINESS" Haggis, Eastwood crafts a story of a female boxer that occasionally moves us when it stops trying to shove us. The boxer in question is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), an amateur with a lot of spunk who shows up one day at the gym of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Dunn used to be one of the most celebrated trainers in the business but, as this is a sports film that isn't Raging Bull, his reputation lies in tatters. We learn bits and pieces of his past when his friend Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), who reveals those clichéd "You're not a young man anymore Frank. You know what happened the last time you did this" way. Freeman also narrates the film, because of course he does.

Initially, Dunn refuses to train Maggie. "I don't train girls!" Eastwood growls in that way that makes you forgive so many flaws. Then Haggis lays on Maggie's life story: she's poor! Look at her trailer trash family! She don't wanna be bussin' no tables fo' the res' of her life! Dunn cannot argue with that, and agrees to turn this 32-year old into a fighter.

In almost no time, Maggie becomes a prize fighter. We are meant to believe that it's through her sheer strength of will and Dunn's magic, but personally I think growing up with rednecks helps. She's so good that Dunn has to spend all of his savings just to convince managers to put their fighters in the ring with her. Even when he places Maggie in a higher weight class, she tears her way through the competition. Until one fateful fight, that is.

You know how, in Do the Right Thing, Radio Raheem sported brass knuckles that read "LOVE" and "HATE" (a reference to the masterpiece Night of the Hunter, in case you don't know)? Paul Haggis has some too, only his say "THEME" and "THEME-ER;" after a gruesome fight has dire consequences on the characters, Haggis starts swinging those fists into the audiences' faces with the same intensity of Maggie's blows. First Maggie's family shows up, and if you think Haggis was overselling it beforehand, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Then comes that infamous ending. Even though I can't imagine anyone being surprised at this point, I won't spoil it. It's meant to be moving but there's a disconnect: Haggis backs off to let Eastwood take over, but Eastwood sticks to his minimalism and the whole thing feels strangely hollow. The final scene does not necessarily fail because of this, but it lacks the impact such an event should produce. So this is how the film ends...

I do like the film, for what it's worth; matter of fact, I've yet to see an Eastwood film this decade I haven't liked (still haven't seen Changeling, though). Yet it presents perhaps the greatest imbalance between Eastwood's direction and the film's tone, and the film oscillates so often between the two extremes that I end up with a sort of vertigo. Swank and Freeman put in some great work, and of course Eastwood shines without having to do anything resembling "acting," and they elevate the film into something occasionally enjoyable.

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