Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Dir. Clint Eastwood. Starring Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman

Hurt, sad, defeated, [Emma Stone] collapses, face first, onto her bed while a wall-sized image of Ingrid Bergman smiles behind her. It’s not often that a movie finds a way to create a self-describing image, but La La Land, bless its heart, pulled it off.

Million Dollar Baby has its own self-describing image, and it’s not any more flattering than the one in La La Land. It shows us Frankie (Eastwood) outside a Catholic church, needling the priest about the Trinity. Apparently the priest (Brian F. O’Byrne) has had this chat with Frankie before, and he’s a little tired of this parishioner who shows up every day and who struggles to have the faith to grasp the most central tenets of Christianity. Is Jesus a demigod? Frankie asks the priest. (The priest has apparently never heard the explanation about how the tripartite nature of God is like the three forms of water, but I mean, why would a priest have heard about that metaphor?) “There are no demigods, you fucking pagan,” the priest replies. This is all the power Million Dollar Baby has: it believes it can shock (priests say bad words), and all you have to do is look at the smug glower on Eastwood’s face to know that he’s impressed with himself. In effect it’s as tame as Mary’s little lamb.

And so two hours into the movie, Million Dollar Baby is less about a tough woman who has it in her heart to box, or a crusty old trainer who is moved by her passion, and it’s more about racial animus and welfare queens. It spends all of this time filming with the color palette of a dirty toilet, because realism, and then refuses to evince an ounce of realism in terms of its own plot when Maggie (Swank) gets cold-cocked; these are the two poles, between which lie a dozen fights in which Maggie wins all of her bouts by knockout despite having little professional training and being much too old for the sport. Million Dollar Baby has a plot with all of the reason and diligence of a mid-season episode of Glee, with all of the forced one-liners and Tumblr-worthy gifs of the same. Behold: the New York Times’ third-best movie of the 21st Century. (I swear, I think they give people hemorrhoids and a frantic desire to cape for Clint Eastwood when they turn forty.) Million Dollar Baby is at the midway point between Eastwood’s Unforgiven and La La Land. All three were hailed as essential revisions of their respective genres, and yet it’s hard to say exactly what is being revised or to what end. Million Dollar Baby is least redeemed by attractiveness or acting, and all in all is the most clueless of the bunch; it bounces around the most tired elements of the boxing movie, but thinks that because the boxer is a woman it must be doing something new.

The center of the movie is, despite its weird adventures into “Don’t give me nice things because I love my welfare too much” and “Have you noticed that all the people of color in this movie do something bad to a white person except for Morgan Freeman?” territory, is the relationship between Maggie and Frankie. The intention is clearly to give a fatherless young woman a strong male figure to become loyal to, as the old man whose relationship with his daughter is kaput gains a new one. How much one believes in this relationship is contingent on how much one believes in Swank and Eastwood as actors. Swank is fine, although the movie gives her little more to work with than a hick accent and a perky attitude. Eastwood is fine, although he’s playing “gruff and soulful” and not an actual human being. Even if Swank and Eastwood were levels of magnitude better, there’s no reason to think that their characters would come to life.

Neither of them has anything left to lose, either, as is something of a given in these movies. Frankie’s lack of confidence in the best fighter he’s ever had, and that fighter’s wise jump to another trainer, puts his sad little gym in peril. Maggie’s background, narrated by Scrap (Freeman) as she clears tables and puts the remains of someone else’s steak in tinfoil, is one goofy clause away from a Bulwer-Lytton winner: “She came from southwestern Missouri, the hills outside the scratchy-ass Ozark town of Theodosia, set in the cedars and oak trees, somewhere between nowhere and goodbye.” The screenplay is by Paul Haggis of London, Ontario; the movie is directed by Clint Eastwood of Alameda County, California. Like Martin McDonagh of London, England, I think it’s fair to say that our friends here are using “Missouri” as “hell on earth” without having a clue about Missouri. There’s a more nuanced portrait of Missouri in Oklahoma! than there is in the Oscarbait of the past twenty years, and the overall effect is that the movie traffics in vagueness. Maggie is a scrappy boxer type, Frankie is a wizened trainer type, Scrap is a down-but-not-out type, and their backgrounds are elided because we’re basically watching three MacGuffins spin like tops. The only serious character work in the movie is done when we learn how Scrap lost the sight in one of his eyes, and even that has to be done in a long monologue. Maggie has a similar monologue about her own background, but her brother in prison ain’t in prison when we run into him; her mom (Margo Martindale) is many things, but she isn’t 312 pounds.

Maggie is en route to winning a championship against her opponent, Billie Osterman (Lucia Rijker), who everyone knows is a cheater and who, Scrap tells us, is universally celebrated because she delivers cheap shots. After pummeling Osterman through one of the rounds, Osterman punches Maggie while she’s on her way back to her corner; dazed, she falls neck-first on the stool that someone has put in her corner prematurely. This paralyzes her, and just to show that the movie needs Maggie paralyzed because it has no idea what to do with her if she won her match or if she lost it cleanly, we hear nothing about legal action against Osterman for an assault which is captured on film and televised. The movie slows to a crawl after breezing through Maggie’s one-round KOs, and it’s around here that the movie careens out of control. There’s a scene in which Maggie’s freeloading family tries to get her to sign her money over to them, though Maggie spits the pen out of her mouth before she can be convinced to give her welfare cheat kinfolk anything and kicks them out of her room for good measure. Setting aside the right-wing mythology of such a scene, it’s just bad storytelling. All we gain from straw men like the Fitzgeralds (or Osterman) is contrast, the absence of character building. The movie is not sure how to show us that Maggie is a good person except to have her run on a beach, hit the punching bag into the wee hours, and the create a world in which everyone not aligned with her is somehow evil. Jesus Christ was surrounded by fewer evildoers than Maggie and had more support in his final hours than she gets in her last weeks. Like Christ, Maggie chooses to die; unlike Christ, it’s impossible to find a point in her death.

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