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Is Oscar's best pic a masterpiece?

May contain spoilers
Shadows swallow Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman in "Million Dollar Baby."

For more information on the controversies over "Million Dollar Baby," please see the related articles section in the left column. We also recommend Jeff Shannon's pieces for New Mobility Magazine: Maggie, Frankie, and Me Interview with Eastwood (clicking on these links will open a new browser window)

Can we talk about the movie yet?

Now that Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" has been officially anointed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as the year's Best Picture, maybe it's time to actually talk about what it does, or doesn't do, to make it worthy of the title. Or not worthy.

Critics were throwing around the word “masterpiece” when the movie first came out in December, but because they didn’t want to spoil the experience for viewers by giving away plot developments, they refrained from talking about the film itself in much detail. So, we got adjectives. The movie was described as “dark,” “deep,” “moving,” containing “visions of mortality” -- terms that may be perfectly accurate, but don't finally amount to much more than critical shorthand.

Perhaps the most revealing thing anyone had to say (and almost everyone said it) was also the truest – that it was a deliberate (even self-conscious) example of “classical,” American filmmaking in the tradition of Howard Hawks and John Ford.

Other critics called it crude, cliché-ridden, shameless, manipulative, simplistic – but the detractors didn’t go much deeper than that, either.

I can’t think of another film that has won so much acclaim for being “deep,” while given only the most superficial exploration by even its most ardent partisans. For a while in December and January I began to think “Million Dollar Baby” was less a movie than a religion, a sacred object beyond criticism of any kind. I couldn’t find anybody – even professional film critics – who wanted to talk about it. It was as if you either drank the “Million Dollar” Kool-aid or you didn’t, and that was all there was to say about it.

Maybe it had something to do with post-election polarization, the feeling that there were “red” people and “blue” people and not only did they live in different states, they lived in different worlds, so there was really nothing of value about which they could communicate.

The reason this bugged me so much is that, you might say, I drank some of the Kool-aid and found the glass half-empty. I think “Million Dollar Baby” is a good little movie with some ham-fisted moments (mostly in the script and direction) that cause it to stumble and fall flat on its face -- in other words, it falls short of achieving the kind of profound, mature vision that would qualify it as a masterpiece.

That said, I’m not here to spoil anybody’s experience of this movie – and I couldn’t even if I tried. If you’ve seen it (and here is your obligatory spoiler warning), you’ve had your experience and nobody can re-wind the Great TiVo of Time and go back to erase whatever you felt. Also, I don’t want to write about the movie’s politics or morality or any “messages” it may or may not espouse. To paraphrase Ebert’s First Law, I want to look how it is about what it is about.

NOTE: This is offered as a contrasting and very personal take on a movie that Roger Ebert has named the best of 2004. If you haven’t already, I urge you to read Roger’s eloquent review (here: "Million Dollar Baby") and the accompanying Critical Debate excerpts from what other critics had to say.

Keep in mind: I don’t intend, or expect, to change your opinion; I only want to explain mine.

* * *

“Million Dollar Baby” is, first and foremost, a genre movie – a blend of familiar elements. It’s a boxing movie (no matter what anybody says, it is a boxing movie, and aware of its place in the genre, even if its most serious concerns are not with boxing, per se), it’s a tearjerker, and it’s a tragedy (though whether it resonates with the full dimensions of tragedy is another question). It’s about Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a trainer, “corner man,” and gym owner, struggling with personal and professional disappointments and demons. He’s estranged from his daughter for reasons we never know, and though he writes to her often, her letters come back to him unopened.

Enter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), who proves to be the fulfillment of Frankie’s unanswered prayers – a fighter with championship potential and an adoring surrogate daughter who makes him proud. Maggie, meanwhile, gets what she wants, too: a surrogate father who loves and appreciates her in a way her harridan mother and the rest of her backwoods trailer-trash family do not, and a trainer who can make her into a money-making champion.

The first thing you notice about “Million Dollar Baby” is the way it looks. It announces itself as a piece of “classical American filmmaking” by stripping itself down to the barest essentials. It unfolds in a stylized, underpopulated world, a hermetically sealed reality where all the color has been drained out of the frame, expressionistic shadows engulf the characters, and people speak in a tough, dry shorthand that owes something to Hemingway and everything to F.X. Toole, the author of the two stories (“Million Dollar Baby” and “Frozen Water”) on which the screenplay is based.

Of course, a book is one thing and a movie is another – “faithfulness” to a source, whether it’s a movie made from a book or a novelization of a movie, doesn’t guarantee success for either because they are such very different forms of expression. But, after having read Toole (after seeing the movie), I’m prepared to argue that what’s best in Eastwood’s film is what’s truest to the sensibility of Toole and, with a few notable exceptions, where the filmmakers have chosen to deviate from or exaggerate what is in Toole’s stories they have needlessly weakened and betrayed the core of their own movie.

The two types of fatal flaws I see in “Million Dollar Baby” are those of structure, and those of character, and sometimes both weaknesses come from the way the source material was adapted in the screenplay. I didn't recognize the source of these problems right away, but I was conscious of them the first time I watched the movie. As Edward G. Robinson describes his gut instinct in "Double Indemnity," the "little man" who lives in my chest recognized these moments immediately and I felt something was wrong, a false note had been struck.

The retired fighter and gym second-banana Scrap (Morgan Freeman), for example, plays basically the same role in, and is the narrator of, the story “Frozen Water,” which contains the movie’s subplot about Danger Barch, the “simple” gym-rat, and Shawrelle Berry, the bully. Scrap is not a character in the story “Million Dollar Baby,” but making him Frankie’s friend and helpmate, as well as a totem of Frankie’s guilt, seems a natural fit, up to a point.

For me, that point first comes when Frankie and Maggie go to Las Vegas for the big fight … and Scrap stays behind. In a tightly woven, classically plotted film, you don’t suddenly leave your trusty sidekick character (and your narrator!) behind for the climax of the story – especially when he’s been established as virtually the only friend in the world for the two other main characters. It’s completely unnecessary (except that the movie splits in two here, with the “Frozen Water” story taking place at the Hit Pit and the “Million Dollar Baby” story continuing independently in Vegas).

Perhaps the corniest and most unconvincing moment in the movie comes when Scrap hauls off and punches Shawrelle for beating up on Danger. In the story, it’s not an old, one-eyed man who KOs a boxer in his prime, but the owner of the gym for whom Scrap works. That man, Curtis “Hymn” Odom, is much younger closer to Shawrelle’s age and still at his prime fighting weight. In fact, Scrap used to train him, and now he works for him. The only reason Hymn isn’t still fighting is that “he got a detach eye.” It makes a lot more sense that this guy could and would clock Shawrelle than ol’ Scrap.

The other problem with Scrap is the way he’s pressed into service at the very end of the movie. Not only has he been a friend to our primary protagonists, a participant in (and observer of) their stories, and the narrator of the movie, but his narration turns out to be in the form of a letter he is writing to Frankie’s estranged blood daughter.

I’m not going to quibble about Scrap describing scenes that he couldn’t have witnessed – say, those between Frankie and Maggie, Maggie and her family, or Frankie at home alone – because, OK, there’s some poetic license being exercised here. But the movie counts on its audience being so emotionally devastated at this point that it will accept something that vaguely “feels” right (bringing the lost-daughter theme full circle) even though it makes not a lick of sense in terms of narrative or character.

Why would Scrap write to this missing daughter to recount a story about another daughter-figure that Frankie loved and then was forced to help die? What is incommunicado-daughter supposed to make of that little tale? To Scrap, the story shows that Frankie was a tragic figure and “a good man” (not a “heroic” figure, as some anti-euthanasia right-wingers have claimed). But it would have been more satisfying, and less preposterous, if he’d just told us that, and let Frankie’s daughter be.

“Million Dollar Baby” is intent on keeping its world as tightly focused (at times downright airless) as possible, and it’s part of the vaunted “American classical filmmaking” tradition that it attempts to tie all its threads together. All of Maggie’s opponents are faceless, for example, except for the two fighters we’ve already seen: the notorious Blue Bear and the Jamaican fighter she pummels. Sure enough, Maggie is soon matched against the Jamaican, and fights her way up to the Blue Bear.

Richard T. Jameson, in Variety, has written about the exemplary use of the stool in the boxing ring, as a semi-comic recurring motif that suddenly turns tragic. That’s the movie’s classical bloodline showing through to its best advantage.

But, to me, “Million Dollar Baby” seems a little too calculated to be convincing; it’s so self-consciously “classical” and fussy in its austere design, that it seems clinical – more of an exercise in filmmaking than a fully reazlized film. At times it made me think of a paint-by-numbers masterpiece, if there can be such a thing.

Anyone familiar with classical story structure, for example, will perk up when Maggie tells the story of her lost father and his German Shepherd, Axel. This occurs, on cue, in the movie’s second act, and if you’ve been paying any attention, you pretty much know where the movie’s going from there on (though in the book, Maggie tells this story in the hospital, as part of her attempt to persuade Frankie to help her die). In this kind of traditional picture, when a girl tells her new father-figure a fond story about her real dad who had to shoot his beloved dog when old Axel went lame … well, that’s the rest of your story, right there.

Perversely, it comes right on the tail of one of the movie’s most wonderful privileged moments, when Maggie spots a young girl and her dog sitting in a truck at a gas station. “Million Dollar Baby” takes a much-needed breather here, and we just share Maggie’s moment. The girl and the mutt are framed in the window of one vehicle, and Maggie is framed in another, and we sense that this is a fleeting glimpse of familial happiness that Maggie is destined never to know. (That little girl is named Morgan Eastwood, by the way.)

This brings me to the film’s most glaring, off-the-charts mistake -- the buffoonish, cartoonish portrayal of Maggie’s family, whom she and Frankie have visited just before the scene at the gas station. In an ill-fated attempt to gain her mother’s approval, Maggie has bought her a house. But mom doesn’t want anything from Maggie, unless it’s cash.

There’s a good line (not from the book) that the actress who plays Maggie’s mom almost pulls off – something like: “Why couldn’t you have just given me the money?” It needs to be said with a self-centeredness that’s both pathetic and appalling, not so much a slap at Maggie as an oblivious denial of who she is, and what her generous gesture has meant. Mom just wants the money.

That would have been enough. But the movie adds another gratuitous scene in which mom tells Maggie, with open contempt, that people laugh at her, that she’s a loser and a humiliation to her own mother.

But things get worse. In some circles, the portrayal of Maggie's family in this film might be described as "gilding the lily." In others, it might more aptly be likened to swatting flies with a snow shovel. Any way you look at it, it's awkward, unnecessary and way over the top.

In the story “Million Dollar Baby,” Maggie’s family calls every day when she is first admitted to the hospital, then the calls taper off to once a week. Maggie discourages them from coming to visit, but her brother tells her on the phone: “ ‘Naw, naw, big sister,’ he said. ‘Mama wonts to make sure our bidness matters is bein’ tended to.’ “

Toole writes, “The family had been in town a week, spending more time at Universal Studios and Disneyland than with Maggie. On what was to be their last day in Los Angeles, they arrived in Maggie’s room with a notary public and a lawyer, who had drawn up papers giving power of attorney to Earline. Maggie told them all to get their hillbilly asses back to the Ozarks. Frankie had watched in silence.”

The movie turns this into a scene of ludicrous hillbilly caricature, as if the orangutan from “Any Which Way but Loose” had been allowed to run amok on the set of “Million Dollar Baby” during one of its quietest passages. I didn’t know just how badly it had been handled until I read Toole, who showed how it should have been done.

In the movie, the hick family not only spends all its time at SoCal tourist attractions, but fails to show up at all until their last day, dressed in tacky souvenir t-shirts and hats. Maggie’s mom tells Maggie (again) that she’s a loser – she says Maggie “lost” the fight in which she was paralyzed by a flagrantly unlawful assault in the ring – and actually sticks a pen in her mouth to get her to sign some legal documents. She does everything but just come out and say, “I hope you die quick. You’re a big disappointment. But give us your money first.”

The scene, as played and directed, is a slap in the face to the audience, as if the director were suffering an outburst of Tourette’s syndrome. This is a serious flaw in a movie that wishes to be taken with solemn seriousness. To go so far out of its way (and, for whatever reason, to stray so far from its source material in this manner) to make already terrible characters into oversized sideshow villains, when simply portraying them as crass and selfish would have been plenty, shows a disregard for the complexities of character you find in films with a more mature understanding of what makes people tick.

I know, it’s difficult to be more chronologically “mature” – and still making movies – than Eastwood at age 74, but “Million Dollar Baby” and “Mystic River” (which suffers similar plot and character non sequiturs in its final 15 minutes) are big steps backward from the no less archetypal but more fully seasoned characters in “Unforgiven,” made back when the director was a spring chicken of 63.

And it’s a glaring and galling fault in a movie that has already shown us, with wit and economy, a richly ambivalent relationship between Frankie and his priest (a relationship which did not originate with Toole).

This brings me to my final major problem with “Million Dollar Baby,” which is Maggie’s transformation from a fighter (in every sense of the word) to a would-be suicide. We all bring our own baggage to the movies we see, and maybe it’s because I have fought my own battles with suicidal depression nearly all my life that I just didn’t buy Maggie as the suicidal type. Yes, we are told that paraplegics and quadriplegics often go through a suicidal phase – though, as some have pointed out, it is likely to be most serious once they have been through rehabilitative therapy and realize that this is about as much as they’re ever going to recover. But ever-spunky Maggie doesn't convey that level of despair and resignation. Her choice, therefore, seemed more a function of structural symmetry than one of human suffering, dictated by the plot rather than by the character.

It’s not clear how much time goes by between her injury and the time she asks to die, but although we know she is in great pain (psychological, if not physical), she still has a strong connection to Frankie and is even able to engage in soulful repartee with him (“Fly there, drive back”). From everything we’ve seen in the movie, Maggie is a fighter. She fought to get away from her toxic redneck family, to survive on scraps from her waitressing job, to build herself into a good fighter, and took lesser physical injuries in stride. I just don’t buy that she would give up this easily – on herself, or on Frankie, who clearly loves her and wants to care for her in a way that would give meaning to both their lives -- without fighting her way through rehab and recovering as much as she can first.

I think the movie owes her that much, but we don't see her go through that physical or emotional process. Although the film did a fine job of redefining the dreaded sports-movie "training montage" a little earlier -- emphasizing Maggie's rough gym regimen, as well as the work she also has to do to pay the bills -- Maggie's rehabilitation efforts (if any) are skimmed over.

Suicide, by definition, is not a rational decision. You don’t weigh the pros and cons and then let the results of the equation make your choice. Suicide is the result of utter despondency (a complete emotional disconnection from everything – past, present, and future), an irrational sense that not only can you not stand another moment of existence, but that enduring the eternity of the next five minutes is unimaginable. You can't imagine that you will ever feel differently – and, maybe, that you have never really felt true happiness at all, since the comfort and joy associated even with otherwise happy memories is utterly inaccessible to you.

Maggie biting her tongue is a symptom, or an expression, of that kind of despair, but I didn’t see it in her eyes, or in the way she talked with Frankie. To be sure, I absolutely believed that, once she asked Frankie to help her die, he had no other choice, even though he knew it would destroy him. But looking at things from Maggie's side, she had to have known that, too – and, to me, she didn’t seem sufficiently detached from him at that point in the film to have asked the question while still being emotionally aware of its consequences.

“Million Dollar Baby” is still a good and powerful movie, moving in the way that genre movies, which operate on an almost mythic level, are traditionally affecting and satisfying. But I don’t believe that it’s a great one. The air is too rarified to sustain the messiness of human life, and the visual design bleaches even the Hit Pit of sweat and, as Frankie says, “the stink” of boxing. It’s 99 and 44/100 percent pure artifice – more of a template for a type of movie than a full-blooded, living, breathing movie itself – and not entirely worthy of the comparisons to John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Robert Bresson that its critical enthusiasts have made.

ENDNOTE: I don’t like to pit one movie against another, but since I’m writing this in the aftermath of the Oscars, I wanted to add one other observation: Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” the deceptively light, messy, melancholy Altmanesque road movie and buddy picture that was also nominated for the Academy’s Best Picture award, strikes me as a fresher, more nuanced and mature look at people mired in their lives’ disappointments than “Million Dollar Baby.” “Sideways” is a movie about characters who reveal themselves slowly and unexpectedly throughout the film; “MDB” is more of a movie about familiar character types – specifically, movie archetypes. One movie is a picaresque comedy with undertones of failure, loneliness, lost youth and disappointment; the other embraces similar themes, but in the form of a surrogate-familial love story, a boxing movie, and a Greek tragedy. By temperament, I happen to be more fond of the former than the latter.

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