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Million Dollar Baby (1 Viewer)

L

Loss

“Million Dollar Baby” is a simple movie about the Grizzled Old Boxing Manager/Gym Owner, the Old Friend/Former Boxer/Janitor at the gym, and the Plucky Young Waitress/Amateur Boxer/Girl with a Dream. Clint Eastwood is the Grizzled Old Manager. Morgan Freeman is the Old Friend. Hilary Swank is the Plucky Young Waitress.

To call this movie a well-oiled machine would be true, but misleading. True in that it’s a standard Underdog/Surrogate Family story told by skilled craftsmen who have been working in the industry for decades. These people know exactly how to make each detail work in the most straightforward, conventional, systematic way possible. The script follows the standard Hollywood three act format, replete with snappy dialogue like “Girlie, tough ain’t enough,” and no wasted moments. From his very first line, you know that the Old Friend who narrates the film will spend most of his voiceover time talking about boxing as a metaphor for life. Once you see the Grizzled Old Manager tell the Plucky Young Waitress that he doesn’t train girls, you know that ten minutes of screen time won’t pass before he’s training her. When he tells her not to call him “Boss,” you know that she’ll spend the rest of the movie calling him that, and that it’ll become a term of endearment. Once you find out that the Grizzled Old Manager hasn’t spoken to his daughter in years, and that the Plucky Young Waitress’s father is dead, you know they’ll form a makeshift family based on the mutual love of boxing. There are no surprises in the first hour and a half or so of this movie. We’ve all seen this story a thousand times before, and we know the moves by heart.

But I would hesitate to call it a “machine” of any kind, because these skilled craftsmen take this absolutely standard set-up and make it come startlingly alive. I really did not want to like this movie when I saw how formulaic the set-up was (and I cringed in my seat at the “Girlie, tough ain’t enough” line), but the movie snuck up on me, and I found myself rooting for this Grizzled Old Manager and his Old Friend and the Plucky Young Waitress in spite of myself. This is a film done by people who know how to use all these conventions at their disposal to make a movie do that most rare and difficult of things, which is really make you care. The parts are held together with a warmth and sincerity that shines right through the screen. The film gets away with being so baldly conventional because the focus is always on the characters: etching them, thickening them, challenging them, making them grow. The story follows the way it does not because it’s what boxing movies are supposed to do, but because it wants to see what these characters are made of. The kind of small things that give away less successful movies of this kind (like the heartfelt monologues with the sappy music) here seem like the most genuine and natural thing in the world. It’s not a conventionality that comes from laziness or efficiency. It’s a kind of earned conventionality that is there because this is the most direct way into the heart of the story.

Part of the secret to this success is keeping the audience’s attention on just the right things at just the right times, and “Million Dollar Baby” excels at that. The scenes come one after the other, make a strong simple point, and move on. Shots never linger a second longer than they’re supposed to, and the camera never calls attention to itself. There is a scene near the end when Freeman is trying to tell Eastwood something, where Freeman is shot entirely in silhouette, with a harsh key light on Eastwood’s face. The focus sharpens on the story Freeman is telling and Eastwood’s reactions when you can’t see Freeman’s face, and the scene gains an immense power from using just that simple trick to make you watch and listen to the characters more closely. The script, the sound and the visuals are full of tiny sharp examples like this, and I would be hard pressed to think of a movie made in the last two or three years to get more mileage and more depth out of such a simple approach as this movie takes.

The major players, Eastwood, Freeman and Swank, all smilarly shine with a strong understanding of giving each scene exactly what it needs and nothing more. Eastwood stumbles a little through the first twenty minutes, making his reactions a little too obvious at times, but once he finds his ground each emotional note is hit with precision and grace. Swank has the most physically demanding role I’ve seen in a long time. We see her transform herself, step-by-step, from a clumsy kid who can’t move her feet to a fluid professional who moves like a cat. The whole movie hinges on how believable she can make the transformation, and she never makes a misstep. Freeman’s strength, as always, is in his voice. He recites his lines with a sonorous quality that’s a joy to just sit back and listen to, and he can make everything that comes out of his mouth sound like poetry. But this character doesn’t get the standard Morgan Freeman Voice: Freeman instead makes his voice weak and sandpapery, giving him more personality and keeping the focus on the character.

Being a film mainly about the way the three major players relate to each other, the strength of the story lives or dies on the actors can interact and how genuine they can make it seem. They succeed spectacularly in feeding off each other and reacting, and probably the film’s biggest strength is watching these actors play off each other. The conversations between Eastwood and Freeman have the feel of ages-old companions who cannot remember a time when they didn’t know each other and know exactly what the other will say before he says it. Eastwood and Swank have a remarkable chemistry, and the script gives them a repartee together that allows them to be genuine without taking themselves seriously. They irritate each other in the small ways that only people who really love each other can. In the verbal jabs and the hidden smirks you get the sense that these people are together not just for a common goal, but because they simply enjoy each other’s company, a kind of relationship that’s very rarely pulled off in the movies.

All this would merely add up to a really good boxing movie if it weren’t for the surprise that comes in the third act, when suddenly the rug gets pulled out from under you and everything is changed. It isn’t done for the sake of surprising the audience, and it follows through on the consequences right to the end. A lesser film would stumble badly on taking such a chance with the story, but this movie gets raised to another level because the change feels unforced and real, and because it stays true to its characters. Suddenly, the questions the movie has been raising have to be dealt with on much more real terms than just in boxing. Issues that were hinted at while the characters were busy worrying about boxing suddenly become much larger and impossible to avoid, and the characters find themselves tested in ways they (and the audience) never dreamed of. Even when it does stumble a little bit towards the very end, its ambitions are so grand and its fidelity to the characters so strong that I admire what it reaches for much more than what it can grasp.

The film does stumble in other places, where it goes right for the gut without earning its way in first. The Women’s Welterweight Champion is the victim of too much movie shorthand, a set of characteristics that make it easy to root against her without any human dimension. She shows up, performs her function, and leaves without a trace. Similarly lacking human dimension is the way the subplot between Swank and her mother develops. Too much is crammed into just a couple of confrontation scenes when a gradual build would have been better, and the mother comes to stand not for a real character, but a signal to the audience for an “oh crap, something bad’s about to happen” moment. The rest of the movie gets away with being so conventional because it makes those conventional elements seem earned and genuine, but the mother doesn’t get enough genuine ground to stand on, resulting in something that feels unnecessary and manipulative.

So while I would hesitate to call this one of the great movies of 2004, the film moves along so nicely and so assuredly that its mistakes are promptly forgotten as soon as they pass, and you’re embedded in the story again. The film is done with such a straightforward earnestness that all the pieces of the story, familiar and well-worn as they are, combine into something else that is singular and magic. These are people who can make a damn good movie, and know exactly how to do it.
 

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