Review: Million Dollar Baby

[No definitive spoilers, but to discuss this movie, I have to hint at elements of the plot, and so sticklers for seeing a movie without any foreknowledge, and I generally include myself in that class, may wish to stay clear. I don't reveal any more than any other review of this movie, but just a friendly warning.]

The problem with Million Dollar Baby, and the reason I didn't feel a single tear at the end, or even my eyes watering, was that it over-sentimentalizes when it doesn't need to. In a boxing movie with tough/soft voice-overs (I recall one description of Hilary Swank's upbringing that read something like: "She grew up in Missouri in a small town somewhere between nowhere and goodbye"), another heaping teaspoon of sugar is unnecessary.

The character Danger, an awkward, gawky beanpole who speaks like Sean Penn in I Am Sam, is one character I would have axed. Morgan Freeman's voiceover describes Danger as "all heart," but he grated on me like Jar Jar Binks. His over-acting pricks like a bur, and he doesn't illustrate anything other to represent courage against another boxer Shawrelle's cowardice. Both are cartoonish in their extremity of character. Hilary Swank's family also felt to me like caricatures of heartless white trailer trash.

Another needless exaggeration in this movie concerns a momentous fight late in the movie. The extent of foul play and the lousiness of the officiating is beyond that in a WWE event, and it's difficult to stomach. It feels like a missed opportunity to highlight the contrast between the cruel oppression of society (Maggie scrapes together funds waiting tables) and the regulated violence in the ring. Boxing has always been one of the most lyrical of sports, where a man can choose to confront his enemies head on, and so to see that order collapse drains the moment of some pathos.

It's a shame because the boxing is more realistic than that of any other boxing movie I've seen, and the characters Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) and Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank) are two of the most likeable characters in movies this year. Hilary Swank's performance is pitch perfect. Her unique face, angular cheekbones and wide eyes, is both tomboyish and feminine, and it conceals nothing. She is well-suited to playing earnest, honest characters. There is no guile in Maggie Fitzgerald, and it's clear to the audience how she melts Frankie Dunn's heart and convinces him to train her. Dunn has an estranged daughter who returns the letters he writes to her weekly (I suspect this type of persistence only occurs in the movies), but even if that storyline weren't present you'd understand why Eastwood would respond to Maggie's courage and desire. She's the most endearing character I saw on screen this year.

Eastwood plays the role he's perfected in his later years, that of the guy with a tough exterior but a soft center. We've watched him on screen for nearly his entire career, much of it playing the toughie, so we feel a greater affection for this new persona; it feels as if he's earned it over many decades. I could have sat in the theater watching Swank and Eastwood on screen together for hour after hour.

The movie looks gorgeous, with deep, lush blacks contrasting with the fluorescent, almost garish lighting of boxing rings and hospital hallways. Many characters seem to materialize out of shadows, legs first, the face last, as if emerging from their own secrets and inner longings.

Million Dollar Baby was written by Paul Haggis and adapted from stories in Rope Burns : Stories From the Corner, a collection by F.X. Toole.