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Million Dollar Baby

There’s a great film fighting to come out in Clint Eastwood’s new boxing melodrama Million Dollar Baby. It’s not difficult to see it down there, buried in shadows and limping through a trash heap of cultural clichés and self-conscious artfulness, but no amount of critical praise can change the fact that this just isn’t that great film.
When the film opens Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), the owner of a boxing gym and occasional manager, has lost his best fighter to a rival manager. The dingy gym has its fair share of characters besides gravelly Dunn. His perpetual sidekick is a washed-up ex-boxer named Scrap (Morgan Freeman), who works as the gym’s janitor and the film’s cast off oddballs includes a bullying black kid, the movie’s trailer-trash heroine, and a mentally challenged homeless kid called Danger who is a tangled mess of clichés.
The film mythologizes boxing, presenting it as an allegory for life. To make a great fighter you have to strip him down to his basic wood, Scrap says in his helpful voice-over. The magic of boxing lies paradoxically beyond fit bodies, beyond even the heart to win: Boxing is about respect, Scrap tells us. Earning it for yourself and taking it from your opponent.
Mutual respect comes at a high price in this world, however, and love is as unfathomably tragic to Dunn and Scrap as a body that breaks and cannot be rebuilt.  
Dunn unceremoniously ignores Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) when she joins the gym. He is underwhelmed by the stringy, spunky Maggie, and tells her to buzz off when she asks him to train her. Maggie has too many marks against her – she’s a woman in her thirties who was born poor white trash – but Dunn is eventually won over by her verve.
The film begins to evolve into something special when Dunn stops thinking of Maggie as a woman. After a round-one knockout he tells her that he doesn’t train girls, meaning that he believes she is as much a fighter as her male counterparts. Her progression as a fighter and eventual commercial success seems absolutely dream-like against the depressing, badly lit background of the gym – so you just have to know that it will come to an end, and in a bad way, too.
It does.
Million Dollar Baby is about desire in a dark, desperate place, and Eastwood shoots most of the movie in pools of shadows where expressions are given unnatural power. This film-noir technique evokes more than the film’s plot can legitimately convey, but this is how Eastwood hedges his bets. If the gritty reality of the city doesn’t tell you he’s serious, the foreboding lighting will.  
This lighting makes shaving seem like a religious event and reminds us that we’re not just talking about a sport where people beat each other until they fall down, we’re expressing, like, powerful issues of life and death. Think Rocky, drained of all joy, written by Sophocles and directed by Ingmar Bergman and you’re close to what Eastwood is shooting for when he presents Freeman covered in shadows so that only his big belly rises out of his silhouette.  
(A sane person will ask why these characters don’t know about cable television? We don’t have to sit in dim rooms and mope about our existence like characters from a Kafka short story anymore. There are all sorts of colors in our modern rainbow.)
Eastwood uses lighting the same way he uses clichés: As shorthand. Million Dollar Baby is so overwrought with tired cultural archetypes that you would have to be pretty dumb not to feel offended. His white-trash clichés are mean spirited, stupid and insulting to anyone born poor, white or in the South. Maggie’s family has been dredged up from the very worst assumptions of the bourgeois imaginary, a place where the guests from the Jerry Springer show are not only real, but they’re the majority.
When Maggie buys her mother a new home all she can do is complain that this will get her welfare shut off. Yes, that $270-a-month TANF check really trumps a $200,000 home, huh? In Eastwood’s world this might make a kind of sense, and he’s betting you live on the same part of town. But for those of us who’ve seen how the rural poor live it just smacks of intellectual dishonesty and bad art.
But it’s not just the fat, lazy welfare mom who Eastwood conjures from his memory of driving through the projects of Carmel, California. We find out that Maggie’s teenaged sister has a baby – who probably has a bad case of croup – and her brother is a tattooed cartoon sporting a cowboy hat, Lynard Skinnard T-shit and snake-skinned boots. The whole ugly gang of clichés shows up to visit Maggie at one point wearing Disney T-shirts and hats, having mooched off the young fighter and, like all ignorant hillbillies, wasted cash on cheap entertainment…
It should be a crime to send stereotypes like these out in the world.
When all else fails, and we refuse to be seduced by shadow play, cultural clichés, or even good old Scrap’s tour guide of the film, Eastwood smashes us with plot devices that are so melodramatic that they seem ripped off from daytime soap operas. The film’s progression is as relentless and predictable as a stopwatch.
I do not understand the critical response to this movie. You can dress it up however you want: Million Dollar Baby is just a trite boxing film, and it’s not even particularly good at being that since Eastwood cuts the scenes short and almost seems embarrassed to present his characters in athletic poses.
The end is a sucker punch – figuratively and literally – with Eastwood returning once more to the easy target and bringing together all his shoddy bag of tricks to force a kind of cinematic gag reflex.
Eastwood pummels his audience trying to get what he wants, but he loses on points and fails to deliver a knockout punch.

 

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