NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.
December is the cruelest month.
December is the month in which studios release their pent-up "quality films", hoping to generate some little gold statues for its stars and some clout for its executives. It's a month that gives reviewers fits, because often this barrage of films opening in rapid succession is sort of like walking through an animal shelter full of extraordinarily adorable dogs, some grinning ingratiatingly at you and wagging their tails, hoping you'll find them irresistable; others looking pitiful, hoping you'll feel sorry for them and rescue them; and then all the dogs are released and all of them follow you home, so that no matter how adorable they are, it becomes somewhat frightening after a while.
In this most recent Oscar® season, we've had to endure the growing sense that Martin Scorsese, who should have won for Goodfellas and has never quite gotten over that snub, decided to make as much noise as possible this year, producing the most massive film in a year that does not have a Middle Earth chapter in it, in the hope that maybe enough flash would finally win him the gold statuette. And while The Aviator is ripping filmmaking, it seems to be simply middling Scorsese.
Scorsese's chief competitor this year, if we assume that Hotel Rwanda hasn't got a chance, Sideways peaked too early, and Finding Neverland seems the result of a typo on a list somewhere, is flinty-eyed Clint Eastwood, whose grim boxing film MILLION DOLLAR BABY is getting a huge last-minute push from its studio, Warner Bros., sucker-punching Miramax, who seems to have forgotten Scorsese, distracted as it is from its impending divorce from Disney.
Considering that for years Clint Eastwood was best known for clenching his teeth in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and in the appallingly Republican Dirty Harry films, his emergence as an eminence grise behind the camera in the aftermath of Unforgiven seems a surprise -- a sign that old Iron-Jaw has gone just a bit soft in his old age. That behind the Eastwood stoicism lay the soul of an artist had already been revealed in 1988's Bird, and a few years later he showed us what a romantic he is in the hopeless The Bridges of Madison County. It seems as if the twilight of Eastwood's life is being spent trying to escape The Man With No Name.
But enough of the films Eastwood has helmed have been good enough to turn him into a Cinematic Icon that a piece of celluloid hooey like MILLION DOLLAR BABY has already taken the awards season by storm, and promises to continue to galumph its way towards Oscar Glory on February 27th.
Imagine taking all the Rocky movies, The Shawshank Redemption, Girlfight, and Whose Life is It, Anyway, tossing them into a blender. Now add a pinch of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and a dash of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Blend until smooth. Then cast Clint Eastwood in the Burgess Meredith role and give him lines like "Girlie, tough ain't enough". Then bring in Morgan Freeman as the Kindly Narrator, sort of like Red, the character he played in Shawshank, and give him voiceovers straight outta the Bulwer-Lytton competition, like "She grew up knowing one thing: She was trash." Now bring in Hilary Swank to play that tough-but-sweet trailer trash gal who wants to box, even though she's already 31, because "This is the only thing in my life I feel good about", and you have a film that can bamboozle even the most grizzled critics.
This may be the most frustrating film of the year, because it's so well done, so meticulous, so --Oscar-y, that its very diligence sucks almost all the life out of it. Not for one minute do you forget that it's "Clint F*ckin' Eastwood, man!" up there. Lean and craggy and in impossibly terrific shape, Eastwood, the stoic man's man of the 1970's, has become arguably the hottest damn septuagenarian on the face of the earth, barely edging out Paul Newman by a whisker. But for all the lines in his face and wattles in his neck, when his Frankie Dunn creaks his way down to his knees to pray in his austere room before turning in for the night, you know perfectly well it's acting; that Clint could drop and give you 50 without breaking a sweat. And it's moments like this which reminded me of that old Firesign Theatre line about "honest stories of working people as told by rich Hollywood stars." One flash of that famous Eastwood stare that can stop any demon in its tracks, and you just can't buy that this a guy tormented by an estrangement by his beloved daughter; a guy tormented by an old error in judgment which caused a permanent injury to one of his fighters, a broken-down "cut man" spending his declining years running a seedy boxing gym for also-rans and never-was-es. This is a film that needed less star quality, not more. I kept thinking about how much more convincing someone like, oh, say, Peter Mullan -- the gingery Scottish actor who specializes in broken-down blue collar guys like this -- could have been in this role. It's not that Eastwood is bad; indeed, he takes such total control over this character that you can't imagine him failing at anything, let alone Life In General.
And poor Morgan Freeman. Here is one of the great actors of our time, reduced to yet another Grizzled Magical Negro Zen Master role as Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris. He's not even Mr. Miyagi, he's just Bagger Vance gone geriatric, carrying the white guy's mop instead of his golf clubs. At least when great white actors like Terence Stamp or Michael Caine have to play these Wise Old Guys, they get roles as Tantric sex therapists or blind kung-fu experts or fun roles that riff on their own legendary images. But poor Morgan Freeman just gets to shuffle around in shabby clothes mouthing Wise Platitudes and having none of the fun that the other guys have. In The Shawshank Redemption, Freeman brought gravitas and dignity to his role as a philosophical lifer. He carries the same dignity into this role, which plays as an alternate ending to Shawshank -- what would have happened if Red never did find that box and meet up with Andy Dufresne in Zihuatenejo, but instead took whatever job he could get, that of a mopup guy in a boxing gym.
Freeman does the narration that serves to tell a good deal of the story, since Eastwood has to spend a lot of time showing how Hilary Swank Trained Hard For This Role. This is necessary because Nicole Kidman showed us two years ago that a pretty girl who uglies down nabs the golden guy, and Charlize Theron added to this last year by showing that the actress who also Suffers For Her Art is the one who's gonna nab that gold statue. Since Hilary does show some pretty decent boxing chops, and endures some nasty facial blows, this of course means, alas, that Kate Winslet's green hair extensions and flawless American accent in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Annette Bening's age-appropriate diva and Imelda Staunton's jolly abortionist just ain't gonna cut it this year.
Freeman's laconic, almost affectless narration and world-weary portrayals have grown so familiar to us that I just wish someone would give him a real role to work with -- something meaty and a little bit fun, like the philosopher criminal he played in Nurse Betty, or even better, something scary like the vicious pimp he played in 1987's Street Smart. But not even the fact that this is a role Freeman can play in his sleep, though, detracts from the easy rapport he has with Eastwood, which is eminently believable, and brings some of the moments of humor that leaven the relentless gray-green hopelessness and overall downbeat tone of the movie.
Then there's Hilary Swank, a very ordinary actress who just happens to shine whenever she lucks into a role playing trailer trash. Eastwood is so restrained and Freeman is so serene that it's up to Swank as the spunky Maggie Fitzgerald to inject some life into this dour little endeavor, and she largely succeeds, even when asked to do such chain-jerking things as taking home a half-finished steak from the diner at which she waits tables, which she then eats for her solitary, drably-lit dinner, so she can put away money for a speed bag. Even Extreme Makeover: Home Edition couldn't come up with this level of pathos. Swank certainly is game -- there's no denying the physical transformation we see take shape during the Rocky-influenced training sequences. Yet Maggie is clearly somewhat of a cipher. We know from a story she tells about her father, and from the nightmarish Red State cartoons that her remaining family members turn out to be, that she's seeking a father as much as redemption in the boxing ring. Yet there's very little else we know, and this is why perhaps the most powerful image in the film is one of Maggie sitting in a car at a gas station, smiling and waving at a little girl with a dog in a truck on the other side of the pumps (vintage pumps which read a gasoline price of 32.9 -- a definite prop/continuity problem). The audience never really makes an emotional connection with Maggie other than in this brief moment, and therefore her trials and tribulations left me somewhat cold.
I think there's little doubt at this point that Swank is going to win her second Academy Award for playing a character of similar background to her Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry, and it is one of the most frustrating aspects to the whole awards foofarah -- that one performance in a flashy role usually wins out over less-flashy performances by actresses with a far more impressive body of work. Swank shines in this kind of trailer park refugee role, but she now has enough other, eminently forgettable work under her belt that it makes this particular reviewer wonder if there's any range there, and whether two Academy Awards in five years really tell the whole story about Swank's talents.
The film also features some nice supporting work, especially considering the kind of awful lines some of these characters are given to say. Margo Martindale, as Maggie's trashy mother, frets about "Thar' gonna cut off my welfauh!" when her daughter buys her a house -- as if the last ten years of welfare reform had never happened. Jay Baruchel as the slow-witted rube Danger March, manages to make sympathetic this Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel made flesh. And Anthony Mackie, in a complete 180-degree turnaround from his sensitive gay artist in Brother to Brother, is scary as an aspiring boxer "with a heart the size of a pea". But the production often seems cheap, with the same Freudian trick of lighting just the lower half of Wise Old Men's bodies and having them spout their wisdom from the shadows used not once, but twice; and the entire film shot through some kind of greenish filter, the better to emphasize the overwhelming aura of despair. Perhaps most egregious, though is the unwillingness to spend money on the fight scenes. The early scenes of Maggie's climb through the ranks effectively portray the kind of dingy, funky, sweaty-smelling venues that house low-level boxing matches. But Maggie's big, flashy title bout in Las Vegas seems to be held in the basement of one of those small, seedy motels off the strip instead of in the kind of top-level hotel that usually hosts this sort of thing.
Of course by now everyone knows that in this film, Something Terrible Happens. It's something that the film's overall tone, and drab cinematography, and mournful music let you know is coming even if you can't see it coming a mile away -- something you ought to, because the foreshadowing here might as well have a big, Tex Avery-style neon arrow flashing "Caution: Tragedy Ahead". And it is an awful and colossally unfair kind of Something Terrible, caused by a gratuitously villainous and unrepentant individual who just happens to be portrayed as not just foreign, but dark of skin. And as if that weren't enough, then something else terrible happens, and then something else makes it even worse, so that any kind of moral nuance that there ever was to the choice these characters make just flies out the window. Not since Thomas Hardy created Jude Fawley has so much adversity been inflicted on a fictional character.
Frankie is supposed to be this devout Catholic, but the film portrays his regular church attendance as being less about devotion and spiritual quest than about needling the young parish priest, asking him if the Holy Trinity is something like Snap, Crackle and Pop. Frankie takes his faith so un-seriously, and the film tries so hard, in its rain of plagues upon its chosen victim, to remove all moral ambiguity, that it's as if screenwriter Paul Haggis were calling upon his memories of the "Heavy Mysteries" bit from George Carlin's Class Clown album, in which a kid would come up with the most preposterous scenario imaginable as to why he couldn't receive communion during Easter and then ask, "Would that then be a sin then, fadda?"
That Million Dollar Baby has received
the accolades it has is more a function of its pedigree
than the actual result. Chuck Schwartz, the Cranky
Critic, once referred to Eyes Wide Shut as
"a highly polished turd". The same can be
said about MILLION DOLLAR BABY. A Coupla Benjamins
Baby is more like it.
-- Jill Cozzi