Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

What a weird movie. Seriously. Million Dollar Baby is one of the most peculiar films ever to win a Best Picture. For about an hour, it's going along fine, a predictable Clint Eastwood crowd-pleasing chick boxing movie. This is Clint in his most mainstream mode, like when he decided to do that "old astronauts" piece of shit, or those movies where he'd sleep with a chimp. (Granted, he didn't direct those, but I'd be remiss writing a post about Clint Eastwood and not mentioning that he often performed with an ape named Clyde).

But it's not apes and their odd placement in Clint's bedroom that makes Baby odd. It's that the movie totally switches gears at 90 minutes in, changing from a folksy, kind of sappy but at least entertaining and focused boxing story into an overblown, tear-jerker social commentary melodrama hybrid. The film's an unruly beast with a tendency towards long close-ups of aging stars going a big gooey one over each other. Not so good.

Even more odd is the immensely strong critical and (to a lesser degree) popular reaction to the film, culminating in an Oscar win for Best Picture and a second win for Clint as Best Director. Plus, the guy won Best Actor! I mean, that's a very strong showing for what amounts to little more than a solid genre performer with an extended, bleak epilogue. Perhaps this subject matter just struck a chord with people, touched on something that's of great concern to Americans, but that isn't expressed often enough.

Okay, so before I go any further, I will ruin the end of the movie in this review. If you still haven't seen the fucker, rent it this week on DVD (it comes out today) and come back.

Okay, you're still here.

So, yeah, the whole thing's humming along fine up until the 90 minute mark. I can't say it's phenomenal or anything. Like I said, I find the whole thing a bit hokey, intentionally sentimental. In other words, nothing about the set-up for this film really rings true to me. The "Hit Pit," the gym owned by Frankie (Eastwood) and operated by Scrap, feels more like a movie setting than a real gym.

One reason is the writing by Paul Haggis. There isn't a single believable supporting character in this movie. The guys filling in the gym are either egregiously goofy yokels like the half-wit Danger (Jay Baruchel is a terrible, obnoxious performance) or stock movie jocks (Anthony Mackie). Though boxer Maggie Fitzgerald, the role for which Hilary Swank won her second Best Actress Oscar, is well-sketched and fully realized, her family is a bunch of silly redneck stereotypes.

And underhanded manager and promoter Mickey Mack practically oozes sleaze every moment he's on screen. Look at the guy's name. Mickey Mack. Think he's an honest, upstanding citizen?

That sort of crap makes it hard to take a movie seriously. Couple it with Freeman dispensing tired boxing axioms from the 1930's in voice-over and you get one seriously cornball set-up. But, as I said, the thing is extremely well-shot by cinematographer Tom Stern, well-acted for the most part, by the leads anyway, and the boxing scenes are crisp enough to satisfy.

It's not great, but it's enough. And then, the goddamn plane crashes into the mountain. Or, more literally, the goddamn boxer falls down on top of a stool and breaks her neck.

It's an odd scene. In particular, it's odd that Clint made the decision to fell Maggie by an illegal late hit, rather than through some accident during a regulation boxing round. It's just another example of him stacking the deck, rigging the outcome to make it more understandable, more sympathetic.

So, you've read this far, you know what happens. Maggie gets hurt, through absolutely no fault of her own. Things get worse and worse, her family turns its back on her, and on and on. Eventually, she asks Frankie to kill her and he, after some argument, obliges.

This material is sort of inherently dramatic and moving, so there's no question as to why it would appeal to Eastwood as a climax for his film. And Swank's good in the role, believably physically as a victim of paralysis and touching in her final scenes as Maggie, showing a brave face despite her intense anger and fear.

But in his desperation to wring every last drop of empathy out of Maggie's story, Clint goes way way way too far. He doesn't just paralyze his female lead on screen. He repeatedly shows her strapped to machines. He zooms in for close-ups on her bed sores. He shows a extended scene of hospital workers having to lift Maggie into her wheelchair. He then has her no-good family show up in California, only to visit all the theme parks before bothering to visit her in the hospital. And when they do visit, it's with a lawyer in tow, in a pathetic attempt to steal her boxing money.

So, yeah, things are looking grim for Maggie, which makes her decision to off herself more understandable, I guess, but not more meaningful. If Clint wanted to make a statement about someone's right to die with dignity, why does he have to make the person in question such a pathetic, miserable wretch?

I can't believe a guy who has been making movies this long made these kinds of rookie mistakes, and I can't believe big-time critics like Roger Ebert went out of their way to overlook the problems and call the movie a masterpiece. The last 20 minutes or so of Million Dollar Baby is an interminably long, maudlin, silly mess of a movie. For real.

And let's not even get into that end scene. Okay, fine, lets.

We come to find out that the entire film has been Scrap composing a letter to Frankie's long-lost daughter telling her what a swell guy he was. Then why does the letter include a silly sub-plot about Danger? How does Scrap even know about Frankie's private conversations with his preist (Bryan O'Byrne), who by the way, happens to be the Worst Preist Ever? He's the kind of preist that gets pissed when Frankie has theological questions, and tells him to stop coming to Mass, then tells him that killing his friend out of mercy would be worse than anything else he even theoretically could have done in his entire life.

What a guy. It's too bad they already coronated Joey Ratz the new pope.

Oh, and most obviously, why would Scrap write a letter to Frankie's long-lost daughter, a daughter he's never even gotten a chance to know, about some woman boxer her dad represented? Wouldn't this theoretical daughter want to know stuff about her dad, not some chick he worked with who broke her neck?

Let's sum up this letter briefly.

"Dear So-and-So,

My name's Scrap. I'm a good friend of your Daddy's. I used to be a boxer myself, and your Daddy was my cut-man, which means that he stuck Q-tips in my wounds so they'd stop bleeding, so I could keep on fighting. One time, I was getting punched in the eye and your Daddy didn't stop the fight, and I wound up losing my sight in that eye. Now I clean the toilets in your Dad's gym. It's a-ight.

Anyway, I wanted to tell you this story about the dad you never knew. He once trained this hillbilly girl with a rotten, evil redneck family to box. She was pretty good, but when she got to a title fight, the champion was a real bitch who hit her after the bell rang, and knocked her into a stool where she got paralyzed. Then your dad unplugged her machines.

Then your dad disappeared. I don't know where he is, but he does like lemon pie, so he's probably off in some diner eating that somewhere. And thinking about you. And that girl he killed cause she was paralyzed.

Oh, and there was this dork who hung out in the gym who was getting beat up one day, and I jumped into the ring and saved him, even though I look old enough to be his great-great-grandfather.

I think that's about all I wanted to say...Yeah, that's it.

Oh, and if you hear from your dad before I do, tell him to call me because I can't find where he left the key to the laundry room.

Your friend,


Konrad said...

I saw the movie, but you made me think about it in a different way. You are right, towards the end it becomes tear-forcing, gluey and too exhausting long. It loses it's speed, sympathy and credibility. It is not worth the Academy Award so far.
Hillary Swank (whom I like) has got one before, so why not choose someone else?
And Clint, I hope he can do better than becoming mild of old age.

berns said...

Isn't it possible, Lonnie, that you just don't get it? Such critical hubris! My God!

Cory said...

What's not to get, Berns? Explain to me what Lonny is not getting. His description seems accurate to me.

Lons said...

It's certainly possible that I "don't get it," but I doubt it. I'd love to hear an explanation.

And offering an opinion on a movie isn't "critical hubris," it's the essence of criticism itself.

pajamo said...

this kind of knee-jerk reviews get me down. come on, lonnie down fall prey to the genX mentality that emotion in a film is false. you're better than this!!!

pajamo said...

Million Dollar Baby
Capsule by Jonathan Rosenbaum
From the Chicago Reader

For all his grace and precision as a director, Clint Eastwood (like Martin Scorsese) operates at the mercy of his scripts. But this time he's got a terrific one, an unorthodox love story and religious parable adapted by Paul Haggis from stories in F.X. Toole's Rope Burns. Eastwood plays a gym owner who reluctantly agrees to train and manage a 31-year-old hillbilly woman (Hilary Swank) who wants to box, while Morgan Freeman, as an ex-fighter who helps him out, supplies the voice-over narration. Eventually this leads to a few awkward point-of-view issues, but the past-tense narration enhances the sense of fatality. Haggis's dialogue is worthy of Hemingway, and the three leads border on perfection. As grim as The Set-Up (1948) and Fat City (1972), as dark and moody as The Hustler and Bird, this may break your heart. PG-13, 132 min.

Horsey said...

I'm with Pajamo.

I can see how it can get tiresome to hear all these GenXers bash on cinematic melodrama. I wonder why hollywood is always bashed for this yet Kurosawa gets away scott free. Has anyone seen the shit he tries to pull in Dursa Uzala?

One of my fondest cinematic memories is the scene in Sholay where one of the heroes (who had his hands chopped off by the villain earlier) stomps on the villain's arms till they are bloody stumps. All the while weeping with strong emotions and encouraging the audience to join in. Melodramatic yes, but great also.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I never saw Million Dollar Baby. I heard about the ending, and I dislike cinematicly induced depression, so I stayed away.

Did I just write 100 words on a movie review without having watched the movie? My bad.

Peter L. Winkler said...

"If Clint wanted to make a statement about someone's right to die with dignity, why does he have to make the person in question such a pathetic, miserable wretch?"

Because only a desperately unhappy person wants to be euthanized, obviously. If Maggie wasn't miserable and pathetic, she would want to live.

Lons said...

Really, Pete? There aren't any terminally ill people who AREN'T wretched and pathetic that might want to put an end to their pain? Seems like kind of a crude generalization.

My point is, you could make a film about the nobility of Clint's decision (or even Maggie's decision) without having to stack the deck like this. Clint's building an OVERWHELMING case...Of course, this woman would want to be put out of her misery - everything in her life fails at once.

But I can easily imagine a scenario playing out in which a person whose circumstances were not so desperate and sad (say, someone whose family loved them...) still wanting to die just because their situation was particularly hopeless.

Peter L. Winkler said...

"Really, Pete? There aren't any terminally ill people who AREN'T wretched and pathetic that might want to put an end to their pain?"

One must feel miserable to want to die or to be euthanized. That's all. Sure, there are even people who are physically healthy who most people would assume from outward appearances have great lives - look at Ernest Hemingway, for instance - who commit suicide.

Ultimately, I didn't like this film. I certainly didn't enjoy it, and the ending was ridiculous. Those bodily monitors emit loud alarms when vital signs stop, there wasn't even one nurse at her desk, etc. But the turn of events leading Maggie to eventually ask for death didn't strike me as implausible. The film is really the anti-Rocky and many people felt cheated out of what they hoped would be a conventional success story, but I think the film has its own integrity.

Lons said...

But now you've tried to change the question. My initial point about the film was that the Maggie storyline more dramatic and extreme than it needed to be in order to prove its point and serve its purpose, and therefore maudlin and overwrought.

Certainly, there would have to be SOME reason, some misery, for a person to want to die, but it does not have to be the megaton bomb of sudden woes that Paul Haggis drops on his subjects at about the 2/3 mark.

Perhaps an individual that still had a love of life and a desire to live knew that he or she would no longer be able to do so without chronic, excruciating pain? Certainly, they are miserable...but they are not hopeless pathetic wretches. By making his hero's case for the painful decision to euthanize a friend over-the-top, Eastwood suggests that such measures be reserved exclusively for cases of this level of severity - an impoverished, desperately alone, permanently crippled, utterly helpless wretch - and I'm not sure that's what he meant to say. Anyway, it robs the film of impact, I feel.

That is not an argument that happy-go-lucky people without a care in the world ask to be murdered. So there is really not much of an argument here.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Maybe this, maybe that. We're wasting our time and mutual respect speculating about exactly how bad off a person would has to be to desire death. Take it up with Paul Haggis, he's the wrier, he chose the events that befall Maggie. Maybe you think they're unnecessarily excessive, but I didn't have a problem with that part of the story. It's not implausible to me at all. Terrible things happen to people in real life all the time. I don't think Haggis thought that there needed to be a certain level of bad things to happen to Maggie to convince the audience that her desire to be killed was warranted. It was Haggis's artistic choice as writer that these things happen to this character. And, by the way, the downward spiral of her medical condition is quite possible, even likely, given her bed ridden condition and paralysis.

Also, it bears poiting out that the central theme of the film is Eastwood's committment to Maggie, not the morality or psychology of euthanasia.

Barbarian said...

This movie is one of the most BLATANTLY manipulative tragedies I've ever seen... it bets EVERYTHING it has on the story of a girl who sacrifices everything to box... then comes up with a both LUDICROUS and PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE stunt to get her killed in the end. The stool would have been moved, falling on a chair from standing height it's nearly IMPOSSIBLE to break your neck if the chair is on a mat... The story wasn't ABOUT the right to die, it was about a girl who came up boxing, and finally the bad nasty bitch she should have beaten. THEN they have the NERVE to give the title to the girl who won with an illegal hit? Did the writers even TALK to a real boxer? It's retarded and a total betrayal by the end- which is sad considering the first 90 minutes was a gem!