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Monday, January 24, 2005

Million Dollar Baby: My View

Some of you may remember that I mentioned my trip to see Million Dollar Baby and, more specifically, my strong dislike of the film.

I was reluctant to instantly express my views on the site, in part because I suspect some people could find them insensitive, but also because this is a film which does admittedly have a big twist at the end. I didn't want to ruin the twist for anyone who was planning to go and see the film.

So, having waited a week or so to allow myself some time to reflect, and also having warned people that what I write will reveal the twist, I'll proceed.

I would really encourage you NOT to read on if you haven't yet seen the film, but are planning to.

So, OK, here's my review of Million Dollar Baby in a nutshell: I didn't like it all that much.

I'd gone in expecting to enjoy it. I love sports films. It's a very real weakness I have. I love the underdog-ultimately-triumphs theme. I love the gruff old coach who's hiding some kind of heartbreak but who is eventually redeemed by his new, young, enthusiastic protégé. I'm telling you: I love the sporting movie genre. I love The Mighty Ducks. I love Hoosiers. Heck, I even enjoyed Dodgeball.

So I was expecting to enjoy Million Dollar Baby. I was prepared for the predictable path from underdog to champion. It's a story I never tire of, and after all the good reviews I'd read, I was expecting this film to handle it with some class.

(Spoiler: in my opinion, it doesn't.)

In the first hour, everything that was meant to happen happened. We met Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood). Frankie was our gruff, world-weary coach with a broken heart of gold (he's estranged from his daughter for reasons that are never fully explained). He's running a gym and, of course, is barely keeping his head above water financially. His only friend is Morgan Freeman's character, Scrap - an ex-boxer who's known Frankie for years. Then in walks Maggie (Hilary Swank). She's a waitress in her early thirties, desperate for a shot in the ring, but lacking any noticeable talent.

Oooo, do we think Clint might coach her? Despite his protestations that he doesn't coach women?

So, yes, of course, Clint does start to coach her. And the film was ticking all the right boxes for anyone, like me, who loves these stories - old coach with broken heart, apparently untalented underdog who will open the heart of our old coach, black best friend... Heck, there's even a kid with learning difficulties at the gym. But here was the problem: I was BORED OUT OF MY MIND.

I mean, honestly, we all know Clint's gonna coach Maggie. So WHY NOT GET A DAMN MOVE ON? Not least to spare me from Morgan Freeman's voiceover of which, thanks to Morgan's acted Southern American accent, I can only understand about 50%.

Reviews had told me there was going to be a twist. Early on, my money was on Clint's character having throat cancer. It seemed like the melodramatic stunt this movie might pull. As it turned out, his character's way of speaking was acting, not a hint at some deadly disease.

No, what happens is that Swank's character - just as she's about to win the title - whacks her head on a stool and becomes entirely paralysed from the neck down.

And that's when we realise that this really isn't meant to be a film about boxing at all: it's meant to be a film about euthanasia.

Now, clearly, this is an important and moving topic. But it's one which I felt Million Dollar Baby handled in such a clumsy fashion that I just found it impossible to take seriously.

I don't want to be misinterpreted here: Eastwood and Swank's acting is impressive, and watching Frankie eventually help Maggie die is undeniably upsetting. But throughout, I just couldn't rid myself of the impression that I was watching something akin to a TV movie shown on ITV in the Summer when This Morning isn't on. It was just spread on too thickly. I felt emotionally manipulated. I felt like I was being told when to cry. And, unfortunately, that sort of emotional manipulation doesn't have the desired effect on me. Rather than making me cry, it makes me laugh.

So when Maggie's leg is amputated, I was unable to feel the sorrow the film clearly wanted me to feel. Instead, my mind went back to cheesy made-for-TV productions. "Maggie, I think you're gonna have to lose the leg." Next scene: Maggie in bed with one leg now a stump. Obviously, I shouldn't laugh, but how can I be expected to take this seriously?

The Buddy, with whom I went to see the film, did find it moving, and when I tried to explain this view to him, he was quite shocked I could say this. He launched into a lecture on how paralysis victims often undergo amputations. I understand that, and I find it heartbreaking. What I cannot find heartbreaking is a film which is so desperately trying to be heartbreaking that it handles this subject in such a superficial way.

Maggie's paralysis is an unexpected twist, to be sure. But because it comes so late in the film, I just felt there was no opportunity to explore this serious subject in the depth it warranted. Had we had half an hour between Maggie being paralysed and her losing her leg, I would have been moved. But five odd minutes is just going to make it feel like blatant melodrama. I wondered what was going to happen next. Was Morgan Freeman's character going to be run over by a lorry? Was Clint's character going to find his daughter had topped herself? Life is often tragic, but when so much tragedy occurs within a few minutes of a film, it feels like the writers and directors are just taking the piss.

Clint's character's crisis of faith, for example, could have been interesting. But it didn't feel like a crisis of faith because there was no time to witness him having a real crisis. I was just left feeling that if you want to make a serious film about these topics, you have to dedicate some time to them.

By the final scene, when Clint buys the old diner where he and Maggie had eaten homemade lemon meringue pie, I was sniggering. Honestly sniggering.

My first comment to My Buddy as the credits rolled were "well, that was uplifting". I did come out feeling depressed, which I suppose shows the film did move me in some way. But I also felt anger. Anger at what I felt was a shameless attempt to manipulate my emotions.

It just felt to me like Million Dollar Baby achieved neither of its apparent aims: it didn't wind up being a film about the underdog's triumph, and its treatment of paralysis and euthanasia wasn't in-depth or long enough to make the film a comment on that important issue.

And it felt like Oscar bait. All the boxes had been ticked - serious social subject, religious worries, the treatment of those with learning difficulties... And so on, and so on, and so on. So it wasn't just that I felt like I was being manipulated - I felt award juries were too.

As I walked out of the cinema, more or less everyone was crying, so clearly this film has affected the majority of people. But I just can't be affected by a film which feels like it's out to manipulate. And nor can I take seriously a film which implies that the whole of Europe is full of people who speak fluent Gaelic. C'mon, Clint. Quit treating me like a goddamn idiot.

So tell me, whaddaya you think? Comments below, if you please.


  • At 12:19 PM, Blogger Fizzwhizz said…

    Well, I haven't seen the film but I know what you mean. I too get angry at the Hollywoodisation of serious emotional issues. I mean, if y'all want to make a film about euthanasia, make a film about euthanasia, but there's surely no way to do it in five mintue without it just being, like, "bump - ouch - shit, where's my leg gone? - you know what, i think i'd rather be dead - oh alright then, bye bye - click - bip - bip - beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep"

    I find Steven Spielberg is guilty of the emotion-manipulation thing in all his films. Usually, I quite enjoy this - after all, you watch The Color Purple because you want to be moved and have a good sniffle, so I've got no objection to my buttons being pressed - but sometimes it's very annoying, as in AI. Which in my opinion is the worst film ever made.

  • At 10:58 AM, Blogger McReadie said…

    Thank you, Fizzwhizz - I'm glad to hear I'm not alone in this viewpoint. (Indeed, as ever, you sum up my point far more eloquently than I could.)


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