Million Dollar Baby

  • Clint Eastwood as the Grizzled Veteran
  • Hillary Swank's Overbite
  • Morgan Cleaning Up the Bathroom
Directed by The Unforgiven
"I hear you're Every Which Way but Loose. Heh-heh. Little joke from my bio. Please don't beat me up."
"What a Brave and Daring Movie for Harry Callahan!"

I don't know what's more shocking: How bad Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is or how amazingly/mind-blowingly positive everyone else's reaction has been. To listen to the film's supporters, it's a strong character study about people who looks familiar from the sports genre that grow until Eastwood takes them in unpredictable places. The film ends with Eastwood venturing into a fierce and powerful subject this normally stays unmarked by most American filmmakers. This is an artistic landmark, they pronounce, for a film icon who has nothing as powerful in his cannon. For me, Million Dollar Baby is a film that begins as a cliche-ridden boxing movie replete with Grizzled Veteran and Scrappy Underdog that confuses character quirks for character mechanics. And instead of remaining a genre film that could possibly bring depth to the people and their predicament, the film violently and sloppily shifts into a completely different film. A socially conscience film with the liberal heart one could only expect from the Californian Republican. This new film known as the last thirty minutes of Million Dollar Baby looks and feels nothing like the film that preceded it. Instead, this feels more like Eastwood getting caught cheating. His conviction with this material and his arttistic force suggests this is what Eastwood wanted to make all along. He just didn't have the guts to put it out front. He labors through a paint-by-number sports movie, turns to tragedy, and critics takes the bait by saying that Eastwood built the characters carefully and deliberately. While parts are compelling, the ultimate product is a dud hoping to skate by on the desired likeable of everyone involved.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) was "one of the great cut men in the ring." This according to Million Dollar Baby's narrator, Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (Morgan Freeman whose voice drags over a gravel driveway). Dupris goes on to tell a story of how Dunn advised a cocksure young fighter to build up some energy during a fight in order to avoid losing an eye. Since Dupris later describes himself as a one-eyed ex-boxer, we assume he was talking about himself. And that Dupris did not take Dunn's advice. Dupris now serves as a quasi-samuri/janitor for Dunn's boxing club in Los Angeles. Dupris doesn't do much in the film besides the incidental narration. Don't take my word for it: On Inside the Actor's Studio, James Lipton recently asked Freeman to describe his character in Million Dollar Baby. Instead of giving an inspired answer anticipated by a nearly ejaculating Lipton, Freeman says "he mops the floor and sometimes cleans the toilets." Freeman knows his place in the film, sadly for him and the audience. Dupris and Dunn banter about other boxers and miscellaneous issues of gym management, but Eastwood and Freeman mumble their line readings so much that they ound like two grizzly bears. Shimes suggests that theatre owners turn up the overall volume but temper the bass because one won't understand what the hell either one of them is saying. Dunn runs a gym populated by wacky characters in the day like Danger Barch (Jay Baruchel), a sorta-retarded Irishman who is probably quipping about something Irish if he could be understood. Die-hard defenders of this film are hard-pressed to explain how this weird stereotype-hybrid character merits his screen time. At night, the gym and filled with ominous shadows that suggest a dark and scary past for its owner. But those dark shadows do most of the work where the script slacks. We learn that Dunn has a daughter that won't return the letters he sends every week. We learn that Dunn questions his faith and pesters Father Horvak (Brian O'Byrne), a local priest who uses the f- word at Dunn in frustration and suggests that Dunn stop attending Mass. If I were the Catholic Church administration, I might suggest this guy start screwing altar boys as a way of blowing steam as opposed to squashing church attendance. But I digress. Dunn also studies Gaelic and reads Yates. I like to think that I understand how things like this play into the role of a character but these two points kind of have me stumped. The film, on the other hand, treats Dunn's hobbies as incidental and common place. As though a gym owner would have nothing else to do but study Gaelic in his spare time. Maybe he's wise? Boring? Just an ill-conceived literary device? Who knows.

Once all of this nuance is established, in walks Maggie Fitzgerald (Hillary Swank). Fitzgerald is a 31-year old waitress from Theodosia, Missouri who dreams of becoming a boxing champ. As a side note, I damned near choked on my Miller Light when I heard Dupris say "Theodosia" in his narration. Theodosia is a dump populated by a couple hundred people just east of Branson that no human being should ever had heard of, let alone write into a screenplay. This is not as exciting as Jason Bourne being from Nixa, but us native Ozarkians will take whatever notoriety we can get. Fitzgerald struts into the gym, starts calling Dunn "boss", and expects that he will turn her into a prizefighter. Dunn has other ideas. He "won't train no girl" and dismisses her proud pronouncements with his mantra: "Tough ain't enough." It's simple and gruff, like "make my day" or "ya feel lucky punk?" Why, Dunn even has a "Tough Ain't Enough" placard over his door ready-made for the office-inspiration market. But since the audience knows that Dunn longs for a father-daughter relationship, it only takes a little prodding from Dupris for Dunn to take Fitzgerald under his wing. Through a series of training montages ('We're gonna need a montage to show a lot of improvement in a little bit of time!"), we see Fitzgerald's gradual progress. And to her credit, Swank looks like she could kick some serious ass. She reportedly trained six hours a day for six months for this look. No wonder her husband is crying all of the time. Dunn determines she's good enough to fight, so we get treated to a boxing montage ("She keeps getting better and BETTER in a montage!") where Fitzgerald plays up the Irish name and knocks out opponent after opponent. Fitzgerald gets tempted to drop Dunn as her manager from an unlikely source in bit of badly-needed dramatic nastiness that is forgotten almost as soon as the film brings it up. Everything seems to be going great. Dunn lets his gruffness down a bit and decides he finds Fitzgerald to be quite plucky. But since we know Million Dollar Baby is a "character study" and not a sports movie, this warm and fuzzy sensation cannot last.

Sure enough, Million Dollar Baby's third act is ushered in by a tragic event. I can't tell you what this tragic event is but I will give you two hints that Warner Brother's PR department could not possibly object. First, it deals with a hot-button social issue that challenges people's faith and/or their politics. And two, this subject pops up in a European counterpart also released this season. Could it be abortion as seen in Vera Drake? Don't count out something anti-war like A Very Long Engagement. This event changes the tone and the style of the film. Gone are the noir-ish shadows and and fancy visuals. What Eastwood falls back to is a very bright look with his trademark, straightforward technique. All of the characters involved at this point now have to make tough choices. All of Dunn's question of faith are thrown out the window and it's decision-making time. This is the payoff for the "character development". Dunn makes his decision, Eastwood makes his point, and Million Dollar Baby ends. But this feels disingenuous and and cheap. It should not either since Eastwood clearly has a strong opinion about this subject and doesn't flinch with portraying it once he gets there. But that's the first problem: "once he gets there." Eastwood nearly films an entirely different movie before he gets to Million Dollar Baby's point. It's almost as though Eastwood was too timid or uncertain about his storytelling abilities to be up- front and make the film he wants to make. Because he clearly is not sold on the boxing flick he puts in front. Eastwood's best quality as a director is the ability to keep the film simple even if the subject and the character relationships are complicated. Look at last year's multi layered tragedy Mystic River as an example. The first two-thirds of Million Dollar Baby is overly artsy with too many camera movements and shadow tricks designed to cover up the weak material. And the material is weak since these characters are nothing more than stereotypes waiting for the next plot point. Dunn's Grizzled Veteran is a little too gruff who's a little too willing to throw around his cinema-friendly bits of barking wisdom. Fitzgerald is written as one of those scrappy, green underdogs with very broad strokes. She's a little too optimistic and sun-shiny to be a nearly evicted, over-the-hill waitress from Southwest Missouri. When she and Dunn actually head to Theodosia, her family is a nasty, money-grubbing replete with toothless smiles and bare feet. And this is even by the Theodosian standards of backwards. Dupris is a little too Enlightened to be a Minority Servant. My point is that a character study cannot make its characters this broad and obvious if it expects the audience to connect emotionally, especially when Eastwood takes the story where it concludes.

That's why I don't buy the film as a cohesive whole. Eastwood knew where the film was going and wanted to get there as quick as possible. But that's where Eastwood paints himself into a corner. Since he was afraid to make an entire film about this subject, he turns a molehill into a cliched mountain. He makes us suffer through this lame sports movie and then runs out of time and doing a huge disservice to his ultimate point. Like the characters of Million Dollar Baby, the moral dilemma is so broad and obvious that the decision makes itself. There's no real tension or conflict because the situation is so horrific and the conclusion is telegraphed from the beginning of the third act. The European film on this subject (Hotel Rwanda is probably a bad guess) uses the same morals and the same circumstances and creates a story that is truly gut-retching and puzzling. Eastwood presents this complicated issue as black and white. The European director (Pedro?) sees nothing but gray and wrestles the audience's pre-conceived notions to the mat. This is too bad because the effort Eastwood puts into portraying the pain and suffering of these moments shows that the subject means quite a bit to him. I only wish filmmaking tenacity matched his ideological grounding. There are things to find admirable about the film, particularly Swank. Her physical transformation and third-act emoting will probably land the very young actress a second Best Actress Oscar. I don't think she deserves it but her presence in the film certainly won't irk me if she does.The film also has a nice lived-in feeling that Eastwood specializes. But critics - particularly my homies at the KCFCC - have given themselves back pains praising the film. They talk about Eastwood as though he's never directed a good movie. Like Mystic River or Unforgiven or the ground-breaking Play Misty for Me never happened. Hell, I still cite A Perfect World as the most underrated film of the 1990's. These critics treat Eastwood like he's the retard who deserves a cookie. This is unfair and misguided. And it surely will win the 2004 Best Picture. But it's still a character study that mistakes types for people. That sees conflict as broadly drawn. That sees complicated social issues as wishy-washy political fodder. Million Dollar Baby ultimately confuses good intentions with good drama. The result is a film that you want to believe, but you just can't respect.

The Pitch:

1 The Next Karate Kid


1 Dr. Jack Kevorkian
2 Million Dollar Baby
See It For:
"Watch out for this new "girl", Clint. I hear she might be packin' a unit. And Hoke don't play that. Not since Shawshank anyway."