Sunday, June 06, 2010

Million Dollar Baby

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 38 of 100

Following his Oscar-winning masterwork ‘Unforgiven’ in 1992, Clint Eastwood spent the next decade alternating between by-the-numbers mainstream fare (‘Absolute Power’, ‘True Crime’, the fun for forgettable ‘Space Cowboys’) and more interesting projects (‘A Perfect World’, the uncharacteristic ‘Bridge of Madison County’, the uneven ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’). None of them, however, quite hit the heights of ‘Unforgiven’, and by the time ‘Blood Work’ seeped onto cinema screens in 2002 it seemed like Eastwood was running out of steam.

Then, already in his 70s, Eastwood went hell for leather and produced, over the next eight years, an incredibly accomplished and impressive body of work: the unflinching Dennis Lehane adaption ‘Mystic River’, his first feature length documentary ‘Piano Blues’, the quadruple Oscar-winning ‘Million Dollar Baby’, the remarkably even-handed pair of war movies ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, the somewhat over-amibitious ‘Changeling’ (perhaps the only Eastwood movie this decade that’s simply okay rather than anywhere between pretty goddamn good and freakin’ excellent), the powerhouse acting swansong ‘Gran Torino’ and the commendably old-school ‘Invictus’.

‘Million Dollar Baby’ is adapted from ‘Rope Burns’, a collection of short stories by F.X. Toole (the pen name of boxing trainer Jerry Boyd). It’s the story of people with broken lives trying to hold some semblance of dignity together while vying for a chance at the brass ring. Two of these people are old-timers: Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a boxing manager and gym owner, and Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman), manager of said gym and a one-time prize fighter whose career went south.

Entering their lives like a whirlwind is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), scion of a white trash family, who waitresses in a greasy diner by day and pounds the bag by night. She wants to be a fighter; wants a title shot. And she wants Frankie to train her. Frankie’s not struck on the idea. When Maggie originally approaches him, Frankie’s first two questions are, “Do I owe you money?” and “Did I know your momma?” It’s not long before he quits asking questions and just takes to grunting that he doesn’t train girls.

Long story short, Frankie ends up training Maggie. He gets her a title shot. Paul Haggis’s script doesn’t contain any real surprises, but avoids cliché by focusing on Frankie and Eddie’s relationship (which seems to be founded on semi-good-natured bickering) as much as on the developing kinship between Frankie and Maggie. It’s established early on that Frankie’s estranged from his daughter. Maggie, scorned by her ungrateful family, is without a father figure (her dad died). It’s to Eastwood’s credit as director that none of the thuddingly obvious parallels that Haggis draws – or his thuddingly obvious lurch into tragedy for the final act – swamp the film with mawkish sentiment. It’s as if Eastwood took the script outside and set about it with a carpet beater (or maybe a baseball bat) until every bit of schmaltz had been knocked out of it.

That’s what I love about Eastwood as a filmmaker: there’s no false sentiment. Nothing phoney. His films – particularly in the latter stages of his directorial career – are shot through with wisdom and hard-won insight. They are stamped with the mark of experience.

‘Million Dollar Baby’ is a low-key and, by its final stretch, resolutely downbeat film. It is mostly a film of interiors: Frankie’s gym, Maggie’s dingy apartment, run-down diners, the backrooms of boxing halls, the boxing ring itself. Eastwood’s style is observational. The truest insights are in the smallest details. A ruefully amusing scene has Eddie, shoeless feet propped on the desk, earn Frankie’s disapprobation for having holes in his socks. Frankie offers him some cash up front to buy a new pair. Eddie pragmatically declines the offer: “I couldn’t swear it wouldn’t find its way to the track.” It’s a great moment: it tells you all you need to know about Eddie. Likewise, Frankie’s beat up old car and too-neat house tell you all you need to know about him.

Indeed, the only time the film slips into the obvious is the portrayal of Maggie’s family. Haggis’s script takes the easy option, painting them in one shade. But that’s the only quibble I have with ‘Million Dollar Baby’. For a film that won Eastwood Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, a Best Actress gong for Hilary Swank and Best Supporting Actor for Morgan Freeman, it’s perhaps the least Oscar-baity film you’ll ever see.


Simon said...

Well, okay. I appreciated the plot 360, from inspirational sports drama to you know. Nice write-up/review.

Erich Kuersten said...

I like your thoroughness here, Neil, even though I can't ever like the film, and must disagree on Oscar baitishness. You've got everything here: death bed scenes, unexpressed deep emotional currents, hospitals, and it shows young people not listening to elder wisdom and suffering the consequences. The Academy loves that!!

Neil Fulwood said...

I've just re-read my review in light of your comments, Erich, and I realise I rushed that last paragraph and didn't explain myself fully.

You're right: virtually every aspect of the film's narrative arc is clunkingly melodramatic and it does adhere to a checklist of Things Guaranteed To Attract Oscars. The point I didn't quite make it that Eastwood's direction strips away the mawkishness of Haggis's script, keeps Swank from going overboard on the big scenes and backgrounds the whole Maggie-as-Frankie's-replacement-daughter theme in favour of the more genuinely poignant, low-key and finely observed relationship between Frankie and Eddie.

Dave said...

I appreciate the quality performances here - Freeman in particular really is as good as advertised. My main problem, and what really bogs the film down for me, is Paul Haggis and just the pure outlandishness of the boxing scenes.

On the issue of the boxing, perhaps its the fact that I am such a boxing nut... but the final fight in which Maggie is hurt is just so over the top and ridiculous, it makes the Rocky movies look realistic. It's just too much for me to take, particularly when the rest of the film has a reasonably realistic atmosphere.

With Haggis, you point out the main issues. "thuddingly obvious lurch into tragedy for the final act" is the perfect way to phrase it.

Samuel Wilson said...

Dave's right about the big fight scene. The worst thing about the film is the way it portrays that other fighter as a pure villain, a creature closer to professional wrestling, and Eastwood as director does nothing whatsoever to mitigate that. It seems like too large a crowd for a female prizefight, too. Fortunately, the film's qualities outweigh this gross flaw.

I think the film was Oscar bait the same way Gran Torino was; Clint really wants that acting award, I think, though at this point I'm not sure if he'll try again.

Bryce Wilson said...

Great film. Great write up.

Have to disagree with you on The Changeling though. It's not perfect but it has two things that make me really respect it.

1) Its the first time since Being John Malchovich that John Malchovich is not playing John Malchovich.

2) I'm about as hard bitten to on screen violence as you can get, and yet the electro shock scenes made me physically ill. I have to give credit to anything that can get past my defenses.

Keith said...

I love this film. It's one of my favorites in recent memory. Great writeup on it.

Neil Fulwood said...

Dave, Sam - I'm not a big fight fan myself so I never made those observations on the portrayal of Maggie's opponent in the last fight, the size of crowds and the realism (or otherwise!) of the actual fight scenes. Many thanks for comments, guys; you've given me a different perspective on the film.

Bryce - good call on those points re: 'Changeling'. It never quite gelled for me the most of Eastwood's other work during the last decade, but it still has some highly effective scenes and good performances.

Keith - glad you enjoyed the review; thanks as always for stopping by.

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