Over the break I happened to screen Mystic River, which a friend wanted to see, and it holds up really well. I’m even tempted to make a half-defense of the Lady Macbeth scene, which on re-viewing seemed to be intended not to explain why Penn acted as he did but to draw a comparison between the two wives. (That’s still not very interesting, but a little better than I originally thought.) Using this as incentive, and wanting to see as many candidates for the year’s best movies as possible, I steeled myself to see Million Dollar Baby.
It is, I should say, better than I expected. I remain baffled that a good critic could call it a work of “utter mastery“, but I can understand why many people admire it. On a scene-by-scene (as opposed to structural) level the screenplay is excellent, and Eastwood has maintained the nicely balanced pace (unhurried without being torpid) he nailed on his previous picture. The acting is an undeniable treat; not surprising from Freeman or Swank, but a pleasant surprise from Eastwood. His commitment to the project shows in his performance, which generally avoids the self-parody of most of his recent acting. As a result of these virtues, the movie is absorbing enough to be worth seeing.
All this said, the thing has more cliches than a Bryan Adams box set, and they put the movie down like an old dog. Obviously, you have to make allowances for derivativeness in a genre film; many enjoyable movies can’t be called original. Let’s say the hungry-young-fighter should be given a pass because on the grounds of gender. But still: the cranky old guy who wants to buy a diner and is nostalgic for lemon pie filling that doesn’t come out of a can, the cautious trainer vs. the cocky fighter, the white trash welfare bums, the Evil foreign fighter, the fighter running on the beach–this list is by no means exhaustive. The climactic fight scene that provides the one twist in the otherwise completely predictable arc ranks somewhere between its apparent forebears–Youngblood and Rocky IV–in terms of credibility. Which brings us to the other major problem: for someone whose aesthetic places so much of a stake in authenticity and modest realism, while not on the level of an Absolute Power there are still jarring places in which the film loses touch with reality. Some of these are minor, like the thick accent the fighter maintains after leaving a border state to live in California for several years; some undermine the scenes, like a crowd chanting a Gaelic nickname that appears on a jacket the audience would have seen for about a minute, or the hospital where nothing happens when a patient flatlines. This type of thing doesn’t really matter in a lot of movies, but as I said about A Fond Kiss, a better picture with a similarly cliched setup, the more derivative a movie’s premise the more it lives or dies on its verisimilitude and attention to detail. In terms of the divisive cinematography, I found it a mild annoyance. YMMV, but I do what to say that invoking Gordon Willis to defend it is absurd. You remember the over-exposed scenes in GFII because the technique was used relatively sparingly. Coppola and Willis didn’t light almost every scene dimly whether it was appropriate or not.
So, if you want to say this is a pretty good movie, I won’t argue, although it could be picked apart to a greater extent than I have here pretty easily. A masterpiece? Not even close.