Tuesday, November 2, 2010

More Mediocre Greatness, Million Dollar Baby Is More Erratic Than Amazing.

The Good: Good character development, Interesting issue in the last quarter, Decent DVD bonus features.
The Bad: Acting is nothing extraordinary, Fairly predictable character arcs, Voice-overs.
The Basics: While engaging at the beginning and end, Million Dollar Baby has a repetitive middle that is slower and fills out the movie with a greater sense of average everything than wonderful.

When one writes thousands of reviews - many of them in movies - when one looks at their body of works and considers the body of art one has witnessed, there are certain things which become much more difficult to accept. As someone who watches a lot of movies, there are movies that are considered great which I find to be much more average because the components, which might otherwise add up to greatness, fall more within the predictable range of what is expected from the actors and directors of the work. Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby left me underwhelmed because the cast and directors were so loaded toward a great work that when they merely performed as expected, the result was less extraordinary than "meets expectations."

So, for example, I make a strong distinction between "great acting" and "wonderful casting." Great acting puts actors in roles which challenge their ability to portray a character in a way that the audience would not expect from that actor. Great casting puts an actor who is good at something in a role where they can illustrate a mastery of that particular range of emotions. This is sometimes laughable when a director casts himself in a role that requires them no particular stretch. After one sees Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, roles where he directs himself in the similar curmudgeon role, like Gran Torino seem far less shocking, interesting or even good. Indeed, one might remark that Eastwood's role in Gran Torino is essentially his role of Frankie in a neighborhood as opposed to the boxing ring. Is Million Dollar Baby bad? Not by a long shot. But it is hardly as audacious as many want it to be. Instead, it is a prime example of "average greatness."

Frankie Dunn is the owner of a gym and a trainer of boxers. He and his assistant, Eddie, are living in the declining years of their lives scraping by. Frankie is abandoned by his star fighter when he will not risk putting him into a dangerous fight. It is around this time that Maggie Fitzgerald enters his gym and begs him to train her. Frankie refuses, but he cannot afford to not let Maggie train in the gym as she has paid her dues for six months. Eddie begins to coach Maggie and after financial problems rise, Frankie reluctantly takes Maggie on as his client.

Managing Maggie quickly turns into gold mine for Frankie as she dominates her class with first round knockouts. While Maggie is tempted by other managers who are willing to take greater risks with her, Maggie refuses to abandon Frankie for more profitable ventures. With a little goading from Eddie, Frankie gives Maggie her shot. As her fighting career takes off, Maggie continues to win . . . until a vicious fighter comes along and threatens everything Maggie and Frankie have built.

Right off the bat, Million Dollar Baby is not a simple sports story about female boxers. To suggest that it is is an oversimplification. Indeed, about half the film is preoccupied with Maggie convincing Frankie to train her and with Maggie's training as opposed to actually fighting. The third quarter of the film chart's Maggie's ascent as a boxer and the final act turns the movie into a debate on euthanasia. It is very difficult to discuss the film without mentioning these three things, but without going into spoilers, it is easy enough to say that: 1. The film is not just a boxing story and 2. It is a very fractured film.

The problem with Million Dollar Baby is that the character arcs are so predictable that the film's three plot stages are hard to describe as "complex." Instead, the movie has a remarkably erratic feeling instead of one that develops and evolves. In other words, while the plot takes a radical right turn, the characters remain predictable and obvious, making the movie seem alternately complex and brain-numbingly predictable. That awkward dichotomy leaves it with the label "erratic" in my book.

Million Dollar Baby is narrated by Eddie and here the movie is just plain annoying. The film medium is ideal for showing stories, telling through the visual medium. If a story is sufficiently complex, it makes sense to clue viewers in to things that might not be visually obvious by providing voice-overs. In recent years, voice-overs have been used to explain an awful lot of things in movies (and especially on television) that are pretty obvious without them. Million Dollar Baby is dumbed down by these voice-overs where Eddie tells viewers things that are ridiculously easy to see on screen as far as plot events and the straightforward character developments.

How are the character arcs obvious? The main characters, Frankie and Maggie, follow remarkably predictable arcs. Frankie is gruff and unlikable. Estranged from his daughter, initially reluctant to take on a female boxer as his client, Frankie is given only one way for his character to go when Maggie enters the movie and he goes exactly down that road. Frankie will loosen up to Maggie and given their age difference and the fact that it is an American film, Frankie will become her surrogate father (if it were French, he would become her lover). Lo and behold, this is the precise way Frankie develops, so much so that when Maggie tells Frankie a story about her relationship with her father, later Frankie is put into the role of the father in a mirroring story.

Similarly, Maggie's role is equally predictable. There is pretty much no story to Million Dollar Baby if Maggie's dream of being a woman boxer is realized, despite her age. So, one knows when she begins begging Frankie to train her eventually he will and Maggie will become a boxer of some ability. If Maggie got pounded bad right off the bat, it would be a comedy or a very brief tragedy. No, here the tragedy comes much later. This is not to say that Maggie's character is not interesting. Maggie is heartbreaking to witness as one sees the way she tries to do nice things for her mother, only to be verbally abused and eventually used.

Here, it is worth revisiting the idea of good casting versus good acting. Hillary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald and she is applauded in any number of reviews for the fact that she trained for the role, much the way Rene Zellweger put on weight for Bridget Jones' Diary. The ability or willingness to put on muscle mass for a role does not make a great performance any more than a well-made costume does. Objectively viewed, Swank's portrayal of the female boxer is much more mediocre as she plays the role almost entirely with a simplicity that the character never grows out of. Swank does slack-jawed and yokelish well enough, but there is little depth in her performance . . . until the last quarter of the film. In that section, Swank is forced to emote through her eyes and sell the viewer on a very different character without the ability to vocally play earnest and she does it masterfully.

Clint Eastwood, too, is given almost no emotional range to play until the last quarter of the film. That last half hour, as Eastwood's Frankie has to wrestle with powerful emotions, comes after one is so bored with Eastwood's performance that it is tough to call it great. No, it is exactly what one expects of a cowboy actor who plays a rugged, manly man. Only in the film's last moments is Eastwood allow to soften his steely eyes and express something other than Alpha Male, but it is too late for most viewers to care.

That said, Million Dollar Baby has just enough to recommend it in that the turn the movie takes in the last quarter is enough to ask important questions about quality of life. The movie has an answer and one of the nice things screenwriter Paul Haggis does is he makes the answer seem almost undeniably simple and direct. Here quality of life is put against "sanctity" of life and Frankie comes to a quick, powerful decision that is easy to look at, nod in agreement and leave the film with little debate as to the resolution.

On DVD, Million Dollar Baby is loaded with about all of the bonus features one would expect from a drama. There is a commentary track and a bonus disc with featurettes on the making of the film, with focus on Hillary Swank's training for the role. There are a few deleted scenes and observations from real women who box and those who like the film are likely to enjoy the bonus materials.

As the winner of the 2005 Best Picture, this is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is online here!

For other fine dramas, please check out my reviews of:
The Verdict
The Social Network
Glengarry Glen Ross


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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