by Lucius Shepard
January 10, 2005
In the outstanding American comedy The Shawshank Redemption, there is a voiceover by Morgan Freeman that comments upon every situation in the film. The grizzled Afro-American con, in his lazy, authoritative baritone, in tones of awe, relates the adventures of the jailhouse wunderkind Andy Dufresne, a gee-whizamajillikers slice of white bread who, defying the debasement of rape and the dehumanization of prolonged confinement, succeeds in giving hope to everyone in the prison by virtue of his indomitable spirit and pristine soul and, eventually, brings the evil warden and the murderous guard to their just rewards, appearing to become, in process, a burlesque medley of Christ, Dudley Doright, and MacGyver. In perfect complicity with director Frank Darabonts genius for overstatement, Freemans voiceover is a brilliant ironic stroke, highlighting the situations of the film with exactly the right risible touch, orchestrating what might have been taken for clumsy melodrama into a deliciously dark comic symphony. Who can forget the scene in which Andy locks himself in the wardens office and pipes an aria over the PA, leaving the cons in the prison yard stricken by its purity rather than, as would surely have been the case, howling for his nuts on a plate? But what worked in Shawshank to heighten comedy serves only to diminish tragedy in Clint Eastwoods new movie, Million Dollar Baby.
It beats me what critics see in Eastwoods last two movies, movies that by my lights are plodding, badly lit mediocrities. (Eastwood seems to believe that underlighting is synonymous with grittiness, with real life, with tragic circumstance . . .with art). His sluggish, badly lit revenge drama, Mystic River, earned undeserved Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins and was generally reviewed as if it were a masterwork by Euripides . . .and, by contrast to Million Dollar Baby, it might be perceived as such. Pick a boxing cliché. The grizzled trainer, the mutilated and/or impaired fighter, the plucky young fighter from the wrong side of the tracks, the implacable, indomitable Ivan Drago-like nemesis. Baby has them all, blending the stuff of a hundred awful boxing movies into a Force Five tearjerker that, though its not without its virtues, is exactly the sort of pretentious garbage that acts like Viagra on the members of the Academy. Eastwood has already been awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Best Director accolade for Baby and other awards are certain to follow.
Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) runs a small, badly lit gym in LA, the Hit Pit, a veritable symbol itself of dashed blue-collar hopes and dreams, where lives the one-eyed, equally grizzled Scrap (Freeman), an ex-fighter who, remarkably, has avoided the depredations of pugilistic dementia and gained a wisdom like that which often accrues to Afro-Americans in Stephen King novels and stories, a wisdom he delivers himself of during a film-long narration. Freeman is herein playing a part he has played many times before, most notably in Shawshank and Driving Miss Daisy: the intimate of a white character, who puts the life of said white character into a context that even the most feeble-minded among the audience can understand, in this instance, spouting little nuggets of folksy wisdom that hammer home points that have been made, remade, and illuminated in neon by the script (the produce of one Paul Haggis, a former writer for Facts of Life).
Not long after the movie begins, Big Willie Little, a hot young prospect, leaves Frankie for a promoter who can move him along more quickly toward a title shot (Frankie has never taken a fighter to a championship belt). Frankie seems reconciled to failure, to spending the rest of his days trading verbal jabs with Scrap and overseeing the ham-and-eggers who frequent the Hit Pit. But Scrap becomes impressed by the grit of a female boxer, Maggie (Hillary Swank), a waitress in her early thirties, and recommends her to Frankie. Frankie is at first loath to train a girl, even one who displays the determination and heart of the Karate Kid, a role Swank played in the third film of the series (were given a flashback of this when Maggie utilizes Frankies training to good effect at the skuzzy diner where she works). But Frankie is an old softy at heart. . . . It seems everyone is reprising a role in this picture, as Frankie is the latest in line of sentimental yet crusty old doofuses Eastwood had been inclined to play in his dotage. Turns out that Frankie is alienated from his daughtershe returns his letters unopenedand Maggies lost her dad. That they fill a certain need in each others lives is all-too-frequently highlighted by the script, just in case we didnt get it, by lines such as You remind me a lot of my daddy.
Almost everything in this movie is a shameless grab for audience sympathy: Frankies wheezing and groaning as he kneels nightly to pray (Eastwood basically winces his way through the role); Maggies white-trash family (Ive seen less-stereotypical caricatures of rednecks in SNL skits), which underscores her need for a surrogate father; the japery between Scrap and Frankie that sometimes makes it seem like theyre competing for the leads in a borscht-belt revival of The Sunshine Boys; and, of course, the ending, the tragedy, which comes as no surprisethanks to the unrelentingly dingy gas station washroom greens and rusts of Tom Sterns cinematography, were prepared for a downerbut derives from a fight that is, in its own way, no more realistic than was Rocky vs. Clubber Lang. This is not to say that Baby is without a few high spots. The two scenes between Freeman and Swank are fine, and some of the fight scenes arent embarrassing. Swank, in particular, works hard to overcome the contrived materialthat she even partially succeeds is a testament to her resources as an actress. You have surely watched worse movies . . .but none, I would guess, that have led you through its turnings with such overstated clarity, point-to-point-to-point, as if Million Dollar Baby were the cinematic equivalent of your first day in kindergarten.
Its like Scrap says, sometimes a boxers cuts are too deep or too close to the bone to heal . . .and later he says it again in relation to psychic wounds . . .and later. . . .Well, you get the idea,
Euripides, it aint.