Million Dollar Baby (2004, Clint Eastwood)

!! CAUTION !!

This interminable Oscar winner is one of several projects associated with professional didact sledgehammer Paul Haggis that received incomprehensible praise from certain quarters in the mid-2000s; I’ve seldom been so glad a movie was over. In a technical sense, it is a masterful film, well-directed and gorgeous, with every shot well-considered and lovingly (un-)lit. Hard as that is to ignore, the story cancels it out; clumsy and stupid with terrible rhythm, the movie’s at least an hour too long for its narrative. As both director (in which capacity he nearly redeems the terrible, clunky Mystic River) and actor, Eastwood squeezes every bit of humanity and humor he can out of a lazy, clichéd, laughably maudlin script by Haggis.

Eastwood’s the only actor to acquit himself here. Morgan Freeman, saddled with terrible voiceover speech, an almost intolerably stupid subplot, and plenty of groan-worthy Hollywood lines about “what it takes” to be a fighter, gives one of the worst performances of his career — and for this he finally netted the Oscar. My reservations with Million Dollar Baby, however, begin with Hilary Swank. I cheered Swank’s Oscar win for Boys Don’t Cry but feel she did not deserve this one, and I can’t say that I think it’s entirely her fault. The difference may simply be that Boys Don’t Cry was an exceptionally well-written movie, and this one’s bloody idiotic. But I would quickly add that, while there is no defending Haggis’ routine pulling out of virtually every trite inspirational movie trick in existence with the shamelessness of a Disney/Bruckheimer coach movie, my biggest problem with this film is one that frankly doesn’t lie with the movie itself. It lies with me, and the fact that I will never be able to understand the type of people depicted in it.

So Swank’s Maggie, an amateur-cum-celebrated boxer trained reluctantly by crusty old Eastwood, feels the only way to prove herself is by getting into a ring and becoming champion of whatever. That doesn’t make sense to me. And it is not the feature of boxing as a sport that makes me say that, it is the notion of sport itself. There is something in my blood, my genes, whatever, that prevents me from having even the slightest comprehension of physical competition. No exaggeration, it quite seriously is baffling to me. I never watch sporting events, I almost never have, I have never really played any sports, I do not know the rules of any of them except for what I’ve read about baseball in Peanuts, and I cannot tell you the difference between any one team and another. (And I grew up surrounded by incessant sports talk, being from North Carolina, and all I can say is at least the athletes themselves are paid to give a rat’s ass, but: digression.)

Therefore, I not only have no frame of reference for the behavior of the characters in this movie (the three central figures are somewhat well-drawn, in fact), I also see nearly everything they do as strange and pointless. A lot of people can relate, apparently including the people who made the film. But this is a personal handicap that I can’t look past. The notion that beating someone up, or for that matter landing a ball in a hole, offers any kind of personal fulfillment is nearly as alien to me as belief in a supreme being. And I certainly am not able to gather why a person who is alive, with all mental facilities seemingly intact, would wish to die because she has already lived enough at 32, and by extension because she’s “had her shot.” But more on that below.

Score one for Eastwood, because this movie is about a group of people I do not understand in the least — and I cannot stress that enough — but the bastard made me care about them, and generated excitement and emotion. Most surprising were the many comic touches right up to the final act, which would not have worked if he had faltered at all in making humans of his characters, as he did in the miserable Mystic River. There are, however, attempts at humor more clearly designed as part of the fabric of the film that come off as tired and wince-inducing; for instance, nearly all of the scenes involving the young stupid fighter “Danger” are as brainless and lazy as that character.

Which brings us to the other major problem with the script. For all its success in turning its three leading participants into breathing people, it could not possibly be more of a copout when dealing with all of its other occupants. The problem extends to the rival fighter who leads to the turning point of the film and the occupants of Eastwood’s gym, and even the mercifully unseen entity of the estranged daughter, but is most damaging when it comes time to investigate the family life of Swank’s character. Maggie’s family are a bunch of crooked hicks, and Haggis and Eastwood see fit never to expand on that in the slightest, never to give any reason why they exist, in the script or otherwise, and seem to relish in playing them first for laughs then for a kissoff that has no resonance, both of which are — and anyone who’s ever written anything will recognize this — lame excuses not to do any thinking about the people being depicted. Haggis seems to wallow in an avoidance of complexity — life is either worth living all the time or it isn’t, and when you’re paralyzed and you used to be a boxer, it isn’t — which does not bode well for his subsequent drama contending that everyone is a little bit racist and we must use our “hammer” to change that. I could point out that Haggis’ stereotypical depiction of Swank’s family and the other “rednecks” in the movie might be looked upon as “a little racist,” but luckily for Mr. H, I don’t believe that it is my place to use a “hammer” to “shape” his world or anyone else’s.

If there is anything to be said for the story of Million Dollar Baby itself, it’s that it is ferociously anti-violence, to the point of near-absurdity — far more so than Unforgiven. That might be commendable if it didn’t seem like someone grappling desperately for a message, and we saw at the Academy Awards in 2006 that Haggis is someone who believes in preaching, not storytelling, and maybe he was ashamed that he found himself telling a story. More desperation is to found in the bizarre inclusion of Eastwood’s religious quest for something-or-other and his unexplained situation with his daughter, two more excuses not to give him real personality (but this, of course, is glossed over because of what is infused by the performance). The only really clearheaded screed in the film is the one that guides it to its home stretch, the one that has been most controversial, and the one that is most patently boneheaded.

The Michael Medveds and Rush Limbaughs who objected to the film did so on grounds that it was an encouragement of assisted suicide. Personally, I think people can kill themselves whenever they want. Sometimes it’s a dumb idea and sometimes it’s a reasonable one, but it’s always their life and their business. So I don’t go along with their take on the issue. But I find myself agreeing to a certain extent with some of the other protests, most prominently the statement by many victims of paralysis that the conclusion in the film seems to give a rather ludicrous notion that life with this character’s condition would not be worth living. Now, don’t get me wrong: I respect fully the right to tell a story and I can see that some people might actually feel that way, but I have to criticize a movie based on my beliefs about what I think is worth saying, not my convictions about what is right and wrong.

For the record, I believe “protesting” the movie is as wrongheaded as this aspect of the movie itself. But that has nothing to do with the matter at hand, which is a movie that is content to suggest that life is something worth giving up on grounds of arbitrary, superficial “achievements” being over with, a movie with its head buried so far in the sand that it offers a viewpoint that all these punches and knockouts mean something, good or bad. Even if its point is that a life spent devoted to this is a wasted one — and I would agree, but it’s their life to waste — it misses the opportunity to go anywhere with the idea by allowing silly little games to so invade the head of a woman that she loses her purporse when she loses said game, and her supposed mentor and would-be caregiver finally gives in. And all the readings of Keats don’t help/are ignored, so the only meaning we have — stupid games — is meaningless. That’s more nihilistic than Match Point (which isn’t actually nihilistic) times a thousand.

It gets worse. For me, the movie only becomes offensive in one scene, when Morgan Freeman gives the real climax, an idiotic action-movie speech that made me want to pull my hair out. The short version is, a lot of people die in low level jobs in professions such as (oh, dear) food services and when they reach their final moments, all they are able to think is “I never had my shot.” Hilary Swank, on the other hand, will think “I had my shot”… because she got to punch a few people? What? Therefore, Million Dollar Baby is not only a movie that alleges that when a boxer can’t box, she might as well be dead, it’s also a movie that suggests that she led a richer life than poor unfortunate souls in blue-collar professions who are far less interesting. I don’t know, where I come from, washing dishes is considered a more honest profession than breaking people’s noses, but maybe that’s my upbringing. Still, doesn’t it seem kind of condescending to say that people who work for a living and have chosen not to correspond to popular standards of success cannot possibly be fulfilled? That’s more elitist than The Incredibles (which isn’t actually elitist, for the last fucking time) times a million.

But who knows? If I can’t identify with the people to begin with, really, who’s to say I should identify with the conclusion they reach? The last scene is the culmination of all the worst moments of the prior two hours, and ends the film with a whimper. The movie doesn’t deserve to reach such a simple-minded, trite finale; many moments in it are strokes of near-genius, like the major twist in the middle that packs a lot of bite even if you know, thanks to Medved and company and other morons who wouldn’t shut the hell up, how the film turns out. All I can really say is that Million Dollar Baby is worth seeing at least once, more than could be said for Eastwood’s prior effort. If we assume, though, that a lot of my problems with it were personal ones, there are still one-dimensionally manipulative tendencies here that are unforgivable. Roger Ebert, who listed this as the best movie of 2004, responded to those who criticized the film by saying that “A movie is not good or bad because of its content, but how it presents its content.” Does anyone except Ebert know what the hell that means? Does he? If I’m reading it right, it’s something like “The medium is the message,” and I don’t really agree. I think the message is the message. Million Dollar Baby, then, is a powerful loudmouth with no real voice worth listening to.

[Originally posted in 2006, when Roger Ebert was alive and I worked in food services, with a couple of new observations added.]

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