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27 March 2006

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie "Scrap-Iron" Dupris)

Directed by Clint Eastwood (The Bridges of Madison County)

From IMDB: "A hardened trainer / manager works with a determined woman in her attempt to establish herself as a boxer."

I found it difficult to open myself to a movie against which I have been so long prejudiced, but my mother recommended that I see this one.

Million Dollar Baby was released in 2004 against A Very Long Engagement, Hotel Rwanda, Vera Drake, Downfall, Maria Full of Grace, Closer, Kinsey, The House of Flying Daggers, Before Sunset, and Finding Neverland, all of which I have reviewed previously on this blog, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture against Neverland, Ray, The Aviator, and Sideways. This competition for my cinematic respect and admiration would have been fierce enough, particularly against personal favorites Before Sunset and Flying Daggers, but my mind was already set that the true best picture winner of 2004 was the jilted masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Nothing, for all of Million Dollar Baby's successes, changed my opinion on that score.

Hilary Swank was particularly convincing as the hardened white-trash boxer Maggie Fitzgerald, and Morgan Freeman proved that - once again - he can steal scenes from the very best. Both deserved high praise for their roles and, in light of less shimmering individual competition, even the awards they earned for acting. Clint Eastwood... I think I consider him a better actor now than in previous years because his skill at directing himself has improved. He speaks less, he is not afraid of appearing crusty on screen, and he knows that his face still has a magnetism that conveys emotion more effectively than any line he could deliver. The film existed as a series of cinematic cliches: the underdog, the tough guy with a heart (and an estranged family member), and the tragic conclusion. Eastwood does an admirable job of assembling these hackneyed ideas into a movie that differentiates itself as something new and interesting, primarily due to these three performances.

However, once you turn your attention away from the lead trio - their characters, their performances, their effective- ness at relating the story - the movie is less convincing. The "Danger" character was just too comic to be sincere, and Maggie's family smacked of every over-wrought hillbilly stereotype ever filmed, without nuance or power as true individuals. If you assume that Maggie is an archetype meant to represent other down-and-outs of her background and ambition, then having such a cliched family might fit. But unfortunately for the overall balance of this film, Swank's portrayal was just too good. She became a fully-fleshed person unto herself, free of most archetypical symbolism, and the portrayal of her roots and family was too trite to do justice to her role.

I liked Million Dollar Baby. The boxing scenes were effective without becoming a distracting centerpiece, a la Raging Bull, and the greasy sub-culture of wanna be boxers was made real. This was Eastwood's most convincing performance, and Swank's Fitzgerald was a truly likeable blend of "aw shucks" and smarts. Their loyal, surrogate father-daughter relationship came alive as one of the most vivid embodiments of platonic love I can remember. I only wish the rest of the film lived up to their example. Ultimately, this was no Eternal Sunshine. Poor thing.

Blogger Mircalla said...

You know what? I truly disliked this film. I found it disturbing in the worst sense of the word, depressing in the purest sense of the term without being moving, desperate without being slightly uplifting and - as you said - full of annoying *cliches*.

Sorry for being so drastic but it is a matter of tastes, I suppose.

Anonymous Pacze Moj said...

I think the biggest mistake made by the Academy of yada yada was handing Eastwood awards for Unforgiven. If he hadn't been rewarded, maybe he'd still be making Westerns.

Although I agree with everything you say in your review (except about the boxing scenes; I could have used more of those), I don't like Eastwood's new-found style: kitchen-sink clogged with soap.

On the other hand, maybe it's all Haggis' fault. Freakin' Scientologists.

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

I SO didn't like Unforgiven. At least he's had the sense since then to cast others as his leads. But really... is Scientology the reason for Crash and MDB? Because that would explain a lot!!

Blogger Tess said...

I was unimpressed with this movie. You're right--the boxing sequences are great, and the actors do very well. But I found the story cliched, and the ending unconvincing. (That didn't keep me from crying, but I felt resentful for being manipulated.)

Blogger carrie_lofty said...

Resentful - good word for the ending. Certainly not genuine to any moving degree. With anyone less than Freeman and Swank in the leads, this wouldn't have even been seen.

Blogger Diva Kitty's Mom said...

I liked the movie but not loved the movie. I was hoping Hotel Rwanda or Sideways would have taken the Oscar.


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