Film — Million Dollar Baby (R)

Million Dollar Baby (R)

by Amy Diaz

A scrappy chick boxer, her repentance-seeking coach and a has-been contender try for a championship belt and a fist full of Oscars with the sad, sweet, engaging Million Dollar Baby.

I’ve got to admit that I didn’t see It with Clint Eastwood — the It that made everybody fall all over themselves praising Mystic River. But Million Dollar Baby, beneath the smothering Oscar hype dumped on it in the last week, is a solid, quiet movie with realistic characters, a strong plot and believable dialogue. It’s like going to a restaurant that you’ve heard everybody talk about and actually having a truly wonderful meal. Justified hype of this magnitude is so rare it leaves you feeling a little like you’re the one slugged in the stomach.

Even the narration, spare but constant throughout the movie, works. It’s delivered by Morgan Freeman, who plays Scrap. A one-time boxer, Scrap now lives and works in the grimy L.A. gym of his lifelong friend Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Just like his gym, Frankie is slowly sinking into advanced age. His years as a boxing trainer are mostly behind him, but every now and then he receives a chance to go after glory again. He usually blows these, allowing caution to rule his decisions for his boxers and pushing one championship-bound fighter to another manager. Early on, a Scrap voice-over introduces another over-the-hill character, the 30-year-old Maggie (Hilary Swank).  She grew up knowing one thing, Scrap tells us: that she is trash. A waitress for most of her life, Maggie won’t accept that her relatively young age is nonetheless too advanced for much hope of a boxing career. Frankie tries, not unkindly but firmly, to shoo her off when she comes to the gym. You’re too old, he tells her, you’re not disciplined enough, not practiced enough. And, oh yes, she’s a girl and he has no interest in training a girl.

Maggie keeps at it and Scrap and eventually Frankie take pity on her, throwing a few pointers her way. She laps it up and returns daily to the gym. A refugee from Southern poverty, Maggie is desperate to do something, anything she can, with her boxing. She has nothing to go back to and nothing else to look forward to.

Eventually, of course, her determination bundled with her natural ability to turn even limited advice into relatively good technique wins over Frankie and he agrees to take her on. After some training, he puts her into fights and Maggie finds a satisfaction in the ring that she’s found nowhere else in her life.

The scenes between Maggie and Frankie are fantastic for their sparse nature — a sparseness that, naturally, serves as merely a small peak for the iceberg of things left unsaid. Maggie has genuine admiration and respect for Frankie but she isn’t afraid to defy him, especially when she believes he is underestimating her. He admires her determination but has feelings of protectiveness for her that manifest themselves with a comic edge. Frankie forever looks afraid that Maggie is about to cry or get hurt or do something girlie that will remind him of her gender (and we gather that Frankie’s experiences with women haven’t been terribly successful).

Their affection for each other also is uniquely layered. They serve as substitutes for each other’s missing family — Frankie’s daughter sends back his letters unopened and Maggie’s mother and siblings are, essentially, horrible people. Maggie is, in some ways, a younger, less reticent version of Frankie. But there is also something deeper — Frankie’s fatherly affections for Maggie are tinged with a romantic appreciation for what she is doing. The result of all these emotional levels is a relationship that is full of complexity and nuance, one very realistic yet rarely seen on screen.

The other big piece of the story is an oddly wisdom-infused view of life. What matters in a person’s life — the things he did, the things he tried to do. It can sound a little overbearing to have a movie ruminate about the meaning of a person’s existence but such conversations are the kind we have with ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, all the time.  Are we our jobs? Are we only our successes? Scrap, who seems headed for an old age of very Spartan and lonely existence, seems nonetheless content because, as he tells Frankie, he got his shot. He made his attempt for glory, lost an eye doing it, but left nothing to regret. The movie, thankfully, comes to no solid conclusions about the rightness or wrongness of setting “got my shot” as a life goal but the fact that it mulls it over so expertly allows the story to continue to develop in your mind — like wine that continues to show new flavors and depths even after the first taste.

- Amy Diaz

 
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