The UnPopular Opinion: Million Dollar Baby
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
This week will see the latest entry in Clint Eastwood's filmography as a director, JERSEY BOYS. The musical may seem at odds with the films Eastwood has made to date, but with varying subject matter and genres, you can never quite pin down what Clint will make next. While we always will look at his best films like MYSTIC RIVER, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, and UNFORGIVEN (to name a few), Eastwood is often praised as a filmmaker despite the movies not being as great as advertised. Case in point, the highly overrated MILLION DOLLAR BABY.
To say that MILLION DOLLAR BABY was the Best Picture of the year when it was released in 2004 is akin to saying that CRASH deserved the award the following year. Rarely have we had two back to back years with less deserving films triumphing over much better competition, but that is a discussion for a different column. I am here to share my critique on Clint Eastwood's empowering sports drama which is instead the most bleak and depressing film to be released in recent memory. Not only does the film miss chances to tell an empowering tale, it instead wallows in a depressingly "real" take on the aftermath of traumatic injury. I am by no means saying that every sports film has to be a Disney-fied uplifting movie like THE ROOKIE or INVINCIBLE, but it is the focus of the second half of MILLION DOLLAR BABY that prevents it from being a sports film.
The Next Karate Kid, Part II
There are two distinct stories going on in this movie and neither truly reconciles with the other. First, you have the grizzled old coach teaching the young rookie the ways of boxing. That in and of itself would have been a movie I would have wanted to see. The other is the traumatic aftershocks of a brutal injury and how it affects the athlete and those closest to her. That may have been a movie I wanted to see. Instead, we get an incomplete mash-up of the two that plays like the writer and director could not figure out which story they wanted to tell so they told both. Released at the height of the Terry Schiavo case in the media, MILLION DOLLAR BABY feels like a boxing movie with a current events message tacked on at the end. Many praised the dramatic pulse this gave the film, but for me it just becomes an eye-rolling turn that made me question why I had just wasted two hours of my life.
Like CRASH the following year, MILLION DOLLAR BABY comes from screenwriter Paul Haggis who seems to come from the M. Night Shyamalan school of forcing in plot twists whether they are warranted or not. Granted, MILLION DOLLAR BABY is adapted from a short story collection by F.X. Toole, but that doesn't mean the screenwriter is not responsible for making such a stark plot element more palatable. Instead, we get force fed a message about euthanasia that could otherwise have been downplayed or at least presented in a less overt manner.
If you are gonna fight like a bitch, I'm gonna slap you like a bitch. Now, get off my damn lawn!
Before tackling Eastwood's direction, let's look at the cast. The three primary players here were all nominated for Academy Awards, with only Eastwood not winning. Hilary Swank plays her character as a butch cross between her roles in BOYS DON'T CRY and THE NEXT KARATE KID. Physically, she certainly beefed up for the part and looks like a boxer, but I have never found that she has deviated much from performing on screen almost exactly the same in every film, just with a different accent. Morgan Freeman, a man who deserved an Oscar more than anyone, is simply playing the same Morgan Freeman character he always does, this time with a little less fun and bit more weight to the performance. Even the phenomenal Margo Martindale here is playing a wicked mama character that is just shy of wearing a tophat and twirling a mustache. Jay Baruchel is solid in his supporting role as well. But, while everyone praised Clint Eastwood's grizzled take on the grizzled mentor with a heart of ice who slowly warms to the new kid in his life, they overlooked that it is essentially a carbon copy of the role Eastwood has been playing his entire life.
Clint Eastwood is a formulaic director as much as he was a formulaic actor. When he was young, he dabbled in musicals (PAINT YOUR WAGON) and comedy (EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE) but stuck mainly to the action and westerns. Don't get me wrong, I love Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name, but eventually, even Eastwood couldn't reinvent the wheel. Well into his golden years, Eastwood has become ensconced in the Surly Old Man genre and MILLION DOLLAR BABY is no exception. Like BLOOD WORK, GRAN TORINO, SPACE COWBOYS, and ABSOLUTE POWER, Eastwood has taken that formula to a successful place but jamming MILLION DOLLAR BABY was just a poor filmmaking decision. Could the movie have worked better with a different lead actor? Possibly, but we will never know for sure.
My neck! My back! My neck and my back!
The movie's popularity hinged on the shocking twist midway through the film which is never the right way to make your film. Would the movie have gone on to the success it had if fans had known or anticipated this twist? While some movie twists warrant repeated viewings to try and see where the twist could have been anticipated or how it may alter future viewings of the film, MILLION DOLLAR BABY is not a movie that begs to be watched a second time. Why anyone would endure multiple viewings of such a film baffles me. In fact, if you were to watch it again, you could pick which type of film you want to see and just skip to that half of the film.
MILLION DOLLAR BABY remains a wasted film opportunity that could have been several better films but instead will be regarded as a footnote in Oscar history. In retrospect, I am sure many of those who lauded acclaim on Eastwood's drama may think differently about it with a decade between their initial viewing and now. MILLION DOLLAR BABY is neither a good sports movie or a good drama about adversity and injury. It could have been great if it was one or the other, but this film just serves as a mediocre reminder of what happens when you match the wrong project and director.
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