According to nearly every early critical evaluation of this latest Clint Eastwood opus, I’m supposed to be on my knees at the altar of Clint. But I’m not.
Where others found Eastwood’s movie just bubbling over with profundity, likening its maker to the Hemingway of film, all I found was a competently assembled collection of tired cliches, ham-handed sentiment, murky photography and predictable melodrama. The movie is half old-fashioned boxing drama (the twist being that it’s a female boxer) and half made-for-Lifetime tear-jerker. Neither half struck me as very good, much less worthy of the gushing praise.
I’ve stated my admiration for Eastwood sticking to his own aesthetic guns all these years, even though I’m not personally all that taken with most of the results — especially when he goes profound. Last year’s big success de Clint, Mystic River, was a perfect example of what I mean.
That film was populated with characters most people would cross the street to avoid, loaded with clunky, obvious symbolism and scenery-chewing performances, and, of course, unrelentingly grim. It was pure Oscar-bait — the sort of “safe” and supposedly enlightened fare that the largely conservative Academy voters like, because it shows how very serious they are.
This round the characters are a bit more likable and the film is allowed to crack the occasional smile (at least in the first half-hour, before it gets really serious). But the film’s still full of simplistic symbolism (how much mileage can one get out of lemon meringue pie metaphors?), trite characters, and predictable turns that mistake contrivances for surprises. (There’s something just too apt about the fact that screenwriter Paul Haggis honed his craft on The Love Boat and The Facts of Life.)
The story itself is certainly nothing new under the sun. Trainer and gym owner Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) is done dirt by his fighter (newcomer Mike Colter), who dumps him for a “better connected” manager, leaving Frankie without a boxer. Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a 32-year-old escapee from “trailer trash” roots who wants to become a fighter. After initial resistance (“I don’t train girls”), Frankie finally takes her on and she becomes a success — though her success is clouded by her unappreciated efforts to help her welfare-cheating, illiterate, obese and just generally unpleasant family.
Then a wholly improbable (and impossibly contrived) tragedy strikes. I shouldn’t give away too much here, but let’s just say that not only is what happens hard to swallow, the fact that there’s never even a hint of illegality ascribed to it is utterly mystifying.
After this turn, Million Dollar Baby becomes too melodramatic to take seriously. In fact, some of it is so filled with cliches and over the top that I kept thinking of Oscar Wilde’s assessment of The Old Curiosity Shop: “It takes a heart of stone to read of the death of Little Nell and not burst out laughing.”
I was also reminded that Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, was greeted with cries of “drive-in movie” when it was shown at Cannes, and indeed, Million Dollar Baby comes off as something like a pretentious drive-in movie. It’s well-enough made — Eastwood’s too much a pro for it to be otherwise — but is it anything more?
How does one justify the umpteenth casting of a great actor like Morgan Freeman in yet another wise-old-man/narrator role? Why not call the film Driving Mr. Clint or The Eastwood Redemption and be honest about it? The movie’s competent, formula stuff, and a lot of people will adore it. I’m just not one of them. Rated PG-13 for violence, some disturbing images, thematic material and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke