Million Dollar Baby

Quick reviews tonight as I’m still in the midst of my first grading marathon of the new year. Like Chris, I was mildly underwhelmed by Million Dollar Baby (IMDB). I certainly understand the film’s appeal to the critics, many of whom have compared Eastwood’s recent work to either the auteurist films of the 1970s or classical Hollywood. The film’s cinematography (by Tom Stern) is impressive, his use of shadows adding to the grittiness of the story, and Dunn’s gym effectively conveys his own sense of resignation as he reaches the end of his career. And the final shot (which I won’t reveal) almost rescued the film for me.

Like Chris, I also found myself annoyed by the film’s “dodgy class-regional politics,” especially when it came to the portrayal of Danger, the mentally challenged Texan who hangs out at Frankie Dunn’s (Clint Eastwood) gym. I tend to have problems with using mentally challenged characters for comic relief and/or easy emotional payoffs, and although his character is relatively minor (the film could have done just fine without him), I think Danger serves precisely that function. Hillary Swank’s Maggie, the female boxer Frankie trains after losing his best male fighter, also seemed rooted in class stereotytpes (scrappy hillbilly with a heart of gold). The film also left the issue of race somewhat unexplored, other than a brief anecdote Eddie (Morgan Freeman) relates about his first meeting with Frankie in Mississippi. Perhaps Million Dollar Baby just wasn’t going to live up to the Oscar-fueled hype that I’ve been hearing for the last few weeks, but I simply found Maggie too undeveloped and many of the film’s explorations of class, gender, and race (and how these categories relate) to be insufficiently explored (Cynthia offers an insightful reading of Eastwood’s exploration of gender). Million Dollar Baby is still a solid film, well worth seeing in the theaters, but not quite as good as the hype. I’d like to write a longer, more reflective review later, but things are kind of crazy right now.

By the way, did anyone else out there find Morgan Freeman’s voice-over to be unnecessary and overdone? I know there’s a clear motivation for it at the end of the film, but in a few places, the voice-over seemed to be trying too hard or to be explaining too much.

6 Comments »

  1. Dylan Said,

    February 13, 2005 @ 10:52 pm

    I haven’t gotten around to writing about MDB yet, but I couldn’t disagree with you more here, Chuck.

    First of all, I didn’t read Danger as mentally retarded or anything like it. I viewed him more as a socially inept. He was the guy in class that everyone called a nerd but he never realized he was a nerd (unlike me, who ALWAYS realized he was a nerd). And I didn’t view his function in the film as comic relief, but contrast to Maggie. Her utter determination was only bested by his utter determination. It was the film’s sly way of saying that, in the real world, heart is great, but it isn’t enough.

    And I thought the only undeveloped part of Maggie’s character was her family, which was cookie cutter white trash to the letter. Swank gave Maggie, in my opinion a quiet depth. It wasn’t spelled out in the dialogue, but her eyes did it all the way through the movie (from beginning to the end, when her eyes were the only things that could do the talking).

    The best example I can give of the fullness of the characters was the scene in the car when she tells the story of the dog. It was a necessary scene, we find out later, but you didn’t realize it was a plot point scene until later. But when she says “I ain’t got no one but you, Frankie,” there is an interesting dynamic that plays out on the screen… wanting almost to be romantic (like a fleeting though in both of their minds) but knowing it is deeper.

    My only problem with Freeman’s voice over was that it was a bit too evocative of Shawshank, and could have done with less.

    I still think Hotel Rwanda was a better film this year, but I don’t think I’ll be too disappointed if they give it to Baby.

  2. Chuck Said,

    February 13, 2005 @ 11:56 pm

    Dylan, I’ll admit that my cranky mood might have colored this review, but after looking back at Cynthia’s comments about the film, I’m still pretty convinced that Maggie existed primarily for the edification of Frankie, so that he could resolve his own failures with his biological daugther.

    I’m probably being too harsh on the Danger character, but I still feel like it wasn’t adding much. At the very least, the use of Danger to illuminate the heart-talent opposition seemed a bit like a cliche to me.

    It may be that Swank’s performance lends a depth to Maggie that isn’t quite as clearly developed in the script itself (at least in my reading of it). but Cynthia’s comments illustrate that a good journal article or two could be written about Eastwood’s treatment of his female characters (I had a similar conversation with one of my colleagues about the Laura Linney character in Mystic River).

    Again, I know I’m overreacting to the critical praise the film has received (and, yes, I’m particularly grumpy this week), but I didn’t think I saw anything new here. That being said, Oscar really likes this kind of film, and I really liked certain aspects of it, especially the cinematography.

  3. Mel Said,

    February 14, 2005 @ 1:56 am

    Interesting, Chuck. The gym world is a kind of microcosm of the social hierarchies of the outer world — there are circles of power, and those who are excluded for various reasons. Sometimes things shift. That’s basically Maggie’s story.

    When I lived in a largely African-American city in North Carolina ten years ago, nearly everything was mostly segregated by race. There was a white mall and a black mall. White grocery stores and black ones. But I trained at a gym where blacks and whites mingled, where rich guys and working-class guys spotted each other doing bench presses. Old-style gyms (as opposed to glitzy health clubs) are one of the few spaces where class and race get blurred or ignored for a while.

    Now the story of how a young white woman gets treated in a gym like that is a bit more complicated. And how this film handles that I thought was interesting, because it’s a story that doesn’t usually get shown.

  4. New Kid on the Hallway Said,

    February 14, 2005 @ 7:08 am

    Personally, I loved the movie, but I’m not a very sophisticated viewer. I didn’t think there was necessarily anything new in the movie, just that it was beautifully done.

    What I really wanted to comment on was the Morgan Freeman voiceover bit – I agree with the comment about Shawshank Redepmption (it kept dragging me back to that film), but I also wonder to what extent the voiceover was in there for viewers like me, who would happily sit and listen to Morgan Freeman read the phone book. 😉

  5. Chuck Said,

    February 14, 2005 @ 8:04 am

    New Kid: I’d be very happy if there were more films made with this attention to detail and story, even if the film as a whole left me feeling disappointed. And, yes, I could listen to Morgan Freeman talk all day long, but the v/o detracted from the film a bit for me.

    Mel: Interesting connections on gender, race, and scoial class. I never got the sense, though, that Maggie ever really interacted with any of the other people in the gym. The story moved very quickly to Frankie’s relationship with her. Still, it’s an unusual topic, which is why I’m very fascinated by what Eastwood is doing here, even if I’m inclined to point to the film’s breaking points.

  6. Pamela Said,

    December 22, 2006 @ 2:36 pm

    With all due respect to the former critics… The movie was just fine…Learn to enjoy them as they are presented from another, different, seperate individual and through his or her eyes… Too many critics….. A movie a book and actor a singer, it’s all in the eyes of the creator, how they express it and how we take it is like traveling from pennsylvania to London, broad. Everybody has their own take as you and I do but this was fine as it was presented…. I never…Lets allow people/creativity to be in the eye of the maker and in the eyes of those beholding the story….. This is a great story, it’s real and it’s great, lets leave it at that
    This was a very inspiring movie and a reality of man’s determination, mans will and mans injury to another human, the rise and fall of beautiful souls and ugly souls. It was depicted beautifully..
    Have a great day

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