BY MARCO CARBONE
It’s that time of year again where the previous year’s movies and moviemakers are endlessly ranked and awarded by organizations seemingly created for this sole purpose. Organizations like the New York Film Critics Circle, the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Academy, and even the falsely progressive-sounding “People” have their choice of films and actors on which to lavish their bountiful praise. While this parade becomes tiresome even to the most die-hard Entertainment Weekly reader, one interesting consequence of it is the small budget, serious-minded film, usually doomed to a small release and a short run, that suddenly becomes the must-see item of the season. Last year, that film was “Lost in Translation” and boy was it amusing to see how much the general population loathed that existential character study of two lost souls in Tokyo.
The film surrounded with buzz this year seems to be director/actor Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” an existential character study of two lost souls in the low-profile boxing world. With “Baby,” Eastwood surpasses his well-acted but uncomfortably contrived “Mystic River” from last year, creating an intensely emotional if not sometimes manipulative foray into the force of will in the face of unexpected adversity and a well-cultivated human bond. But what makes “Baby” worth your time is surprisingly not the subtle writing nor Eastwood’s sometimes heavy-handed direction – it is the public attention of the film itself that will make “Baby” memorable.
Eastwood stars as Frankie, the initially reluctant trainer of Maggie (Hilary Swank), a diner waitress who self-identifies herself as growing up “trash” and views boxing as her only chance in the world. Frankie is weary of mentoring her, he says, since he doesn’t train “girls,” but we find out that he also avoids taking on boxers since he feels responsible for any injuries they incur in the ring. Working (and living) in Frankie’s gym is Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer who went blind in one eye during his last match and the film’s narrator.
Some of the best writing by screenwriter Paul Haggis involves Frankie and Scrap’s relationship, especially when they are quick to indirectly point out each other’s weaknesses using the laconic language of a lifelong friendship.
Maggie is persistent and, with the help of Scrap and long disciplined hours at the gym, convinces Frankie to take her on. It turns out she’s a damn good fighter too, quick and attentive, easily plowing her way through the female boxers sent her way. A filial bond develops between the two, helped by Maggie’s estrangement from her family and Frankie’s from his daughter. Frankie is a trainer, but he is a cutman as well, responsible for patching up bleeding cuts and breaks in the precious few minutes between each round. It is fascinating to see how he transforms injured boxers, who ought to be declared forfeit, into functioning fighters with a rag and a few Q-tips. F.X. Toole, the writer of the short story Haggis based the screenplay on (“Rope Burns”), was also a cutman, and “Baby,” likely because of his influence, is the most interesting film I’ve seen on the non-punching aspects of boxing.
Frankie lives alone and attends church daily, clearly harboring a history he’d rather amend. Eastwood plays him as a gruff man of few words, yet despite this type-casting Frankie comes off as very real. Swank’s portrayal of Maggie is even better – she is tenacious, gutsy, determined, and likeable. No matter how many matches she wins, she looks genuinely elated after each victory. She is the centerpiece of “Baby,” and as such her energetic character coupled with the dark tone of the direction makes the viewer dread the development of each scene. The central theme in the film lies in this dreadfulness, and in how it pays off in the end for Maggie and Frankie.
Eastwood is a unique director with an identifiable style that I find to be frequently distracting. As such, despite the qualities I mentioned above, “Baby” often loses footing with one-dimensional characters. Maggie’s family, for example, reminded me of the nasty families I read about in Roald Dahl novels as a child. Their second appearance in the film completely detached me from the scene. An unnecessary subplot involving Scrap and a socially (possibly mentally) disabled kid in the gym doesn’t work at all.
Without the attention “Baby” has been getting, I might say that these elements outweigh the good and discourage from seeing it. But I can’t say that, not with what has happened with “Baby” in the past few weeks. Conservative, anti-Hollywood film critic Michael Medved has gone on a crusade against “Baby,” and radio host Rush Limbaugh has joined him. To tell you what their beef is would be wrong, since it would reveal an essential development in the film, but if you’ve read any articles on this matter or pay attention to either of them you probably already know, since neither have any shame on revealing spoilers whenever politically convenient. “Million Dollar Baby” is a good movie but made better by this dispute, as often happens when fiction interacts with reality. It is worth seeing, if only for this reason.