Clint Eastwood’s Swanky Knockout

Last week, I wrote that in the largely disappointing year-end movie gridlock, the best was not saved for last. My denouncement was premature. At least three total surprises have suddenly arrived that are intelligent, refreshing, admirable, artistically sound and worthy of the most serious attention. Two of them, Spanglish and In Good Company, are comedies, which shocks me even more; the third, Million Dollar Baby, is a drama by Clint Eastwood that scales some of the highest dramatic peaks of his career.

Two-thirds of Million Dollar Baby makes for the best boxing movie since Raging Bull. Then it takes an electrifying left turn and the final third of the movie gets even better, surpassing Martin Scorsese’s 1980 epic with the kind of burning humanity it never managed to achieve. Women who want to beat each other to death are, in my opinion, sick sisters who substitute bloody violence for everything important missing in their lives. But Maggie Fitzgerald, the disenfranchised Irish trailer-trash waitress that Hilary Swank plays to the ultimate power in Million Dollar Baby, is obsessed with the courage and determination to be somebody, even if wearing boxing gloves is the only way she knows how to do it. The first day she wanders into Clint Eastwood’s ratty gym, the rejection is wounding. He’s Frankie Dunn, a trainer who has, in his day, managed some human tractors in the ring. Cold and callused now, he’s distanced himself from people to the point of emotional anesthesia. Still, he attends Mass every day, tortured by guilt and self-reproach, and hides a cache of unopened letters that have been returned by an estranged daughter he deserted 23 years ago. All he wants in a world of superficial relationships and phony values is to be left alone to search for simple pleasures, like a hard-to-find perfect lemon pie made from scratch.

The only person who understands what makes him tick is a janitor named Scrap (Morgan Freeman). Into this coven of has-beens from Hell, Maggie spends all of her tips to prove she’s got what it takes to be a champ. At 32, she’s old to train, with a brother in prison, a sister on welfare and a 300-pound mother who treats her like a syphilis epidemic. Fighting is the only thing that makes her feel alive. “Tough ain’t enough,” says Mr. Eastwood with a voice like tires spinning on trap rock. But there is something about this waif. As it turns out, tough is just for starters. She fulfills his definition of a great fighter-she’s willing to endure the cracked ribs, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas to live a dream nobody else understands-but she has a heart, and when they learn to trust each other, he finds his, too.

With its gritty performances, its ringside corruption and its lowlife integrity, Million Dollar Baby builds muscle in the tradition of those formulaic boxing movies in the 1940’s written by Ring Lardner Jr. or Abraham Polonsky: the story of a poor misfit with nothing to lose who makes good in the ring, forsakes a normal life for the love of a burned-out mentor, then loses everything anyway while he finds his soul. For the meatiest part of the film, Clint Eastwood’s brilliant direction, in the lurid style and realism of John Huston’s Fat City, is a grim moment-by-moment, knockout-by-knockout manual on how to move, how to pace, how to book fights, how to lose and how to win. Once the battered, cynical Frankie sees how indestructible his pupil is, his reserve cracks and he starts to feel untapped emotions of respect and awe. Once in a while, Mr. Eastwood also allows a glimpse into the characters’ inner secrets: Frankie’s storage box of return-to-sender letters, Maggie’s loyalty in refusing to sign with a better-connected manager. But this is not a movie about emotions, and it is never remotely sentimental. Based on stories from F.X. Toole’s acclaimed book Rope Burns, the two-fisted script by Paul Haggis has a violent and bloody lyricism about the lexicon of pugilism. When Maggie’s fearlessness eventually breaks the rules Frankie has taught her, one mistake in the ring leads to near-fatal repercussions that end her career, uniting them in a different kind of fight; they are a bitter old man who has lost his only daughter and a young woman in need of a surrogate father in an unconventional relationship with rules of its own. In the end, a girl who has always made vital decisions about life makes the ultimate decision about death, and a man who has always had problems with God is forced to test the limits of faith.

For Hilary Swank, this movie is an endurance test that pays off with astounding power. Sinewy and lean, her lovely face tightened over picket-fence teeth that flash in breathless smiles, she radiates optimism in a grim wasteland of dirty bars and cruel ringside cheers where death and glory are the same thing. Mr. Eastwood’s concentrated direction is matched by a focalized performance intense enough to cause a hernia. In a fadeout I will never forget, he vanishes from society and sits alone, hunched over the perfect lemon pie with natural ingredients, silhouetted in the window of an Edward Hopper diner. Million Dollar Baby is an unsettling and unforgettable masterpiece of skid-row poetry that punctures the heart.

Gracias, Mr. Sandler!

Before I saw Spanglish, if you told me I would apply the word “enchanting” to any film starring Adam Sandler, I would have challenged you to a duel in the middle of Times Square. Here is an actor to whom I have always been allergic. His droning voice and deadly personality could put goldfish to sleep. But in this exemplary film by the great James L. Brooks, he is just the opposite of the nuked techno-geeks he usually plays in pretentious bores like Punch-Drunk Love. In fact, as the bewildered husband and father in a Beverly Hills household that is coming unglued by the micro-minute, he is honest, understated and sympathetic enough to actually resemble a real live human being. Of course, this is not an Adam Sandler movie. He is a significant contributor to a hard-working, dedicated ensemble; he holds up his end of the equation nobly. A lot of the credit must go to Mr. Brooks, whose maturity as a writer and sensitive handling of actors in such films as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets have often led to Oscars. Mr. Sandler is in good hands. He serves the material, not the other way around.

And this is material worth serving. Spanglish examines the L.A. culture-collision between affluent employers and their ethnic servants from the perspective of clashing values and changing mores, with a witty, perceptive and touching respect for the differences that set people apart and force them back together under the same social umbrella. Paz Vega, the gorgeous star of Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her, makes her American film debut as Flor, a hard-working single mother from the Mexican slums who has immigrated to California to provide a better life for her teenage daughter. Flor’s biggest break after years of struggle comes out of the blue when she applies for a job as a housekeeper in the Clasky home and gets hired on the spot by the loopy, stressed-out Deb Clasky (Téa Leoni), a spoiled bleach-blond Beverly Hills housewife in the middle of an identity crisis who can scarcely organize a cup of organic tea without hysteria, much less get her children off to school. What Flor innocently walks into is Mount St. Helens, ready to erupt. In addition to the beautiful but unhinged Deb, the terminally frazzled Claskys also include husband John (Adam Sandler), an über-chef on the rise who lives in mortal fear of the restaurant critic for the L. A. Times, overweight teenage daughter Bernie, troubled 9-year-old son George, who suffers from nightmares, and Deb’s mother Evelyn (hilariously played by the great Cloris Leachman). Evelyn is a dipsomaniac who used to be a cherished jazz singer from the June Christy “cool school” in her salad days. No family ever had a grandmother like Evelyn. When little George has one of his bad dreams, Grandma teaches him a new song. Not “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” or “Three Blind Mice”- her kind of songs. Until you see a 9-year-old boy singing “Lush Life,” you don’t know what fresh laughter is.

Since Flor doesn’t speak one word of English, everyone in the house communicates in “Spanglish,” the hybrid lingo 90 percent of all assimilated Latinos in the American work force speak in order to survive, with Flor’s daughter Cristina acting as interpreter, and the results are a Tower of Babble. When Flor secretly reaches for her sewing kit to let out Bernie Clasky’s clothes from the torturous smaller sizes her mom buys to humiliate her into losing weight, a loving rapport develops between the maid and her employer’s kid that feeds Deb’s inferiority complex even more. Then they move to Malibu (“God’s private toy store for the rich,” observes Cristina), where Deb takes an inappropriate interest in Cristina’s education, applying for a scholarship to a private school that Flor cannot afford, injuring her pride. Dad gets his first four-star review, Deb has a brief affair that endangers the marriage, Flor finds herself reluctantly filling gaps and providing warmth and affection against her better judgment. Two cultures converge in the same house, with everyone getting involved in the tensions and conflicts; it’s like a munitions factory waiting for someone to light a match. Something’s gotta give, before a lot of nice people do irreparable damage that can never be reversed, and the ways Mr. Brooks leads them all to adulthood are sweet, moving and genuinely funny.

The actors are superb. As Flor, the housekeeper no sane person should be without, Ms. Vega is a sensational find-a beautiful newcomer who ignites the screen. Mr. Sandler is something of a miracle. And the movie says something valid about the disparate but life-enriching lifestyles that are forcing Americans to live and love and grow in better ways every day-and not just in Southern California. Spanglish soars triumphantly above most American comedies, with no nudity, sex, obscenity or violence, and still manages to touch every trigger point in the human heart. It’s another movie about a dysfunctional family, but this one is different because they’re original, lovable, forgivable and fascinating.

The Price of Things

In the structured and predictable architecture of contrived American comedies, In Good Company is a welcome bas relief, from the literate, gifted and responsible young writer-director Paul Weitz. Addressing a vicious age in which the movers and shakers of capitalist greed know the price of all things and the value of nothing at all, Mr. Weitz has constructed a clever, pungent and ironic tale of misguided corporate power that is both sad and hilarious at the same time. In another charming and three-dimensional essay on American males growing increasingly extinct in their own jungle, the increasingly charismatic but weirdly undervalued Dennis Quaid plays the revered head of ad sales for a sports magazine whose 23-year tenure is suddenly threatened by a corporate takeover, demoted authority and a new boss young enough to be his son (Topher Grace). A 51-year-old achiever with a 26-year-old boss is bad enough, but now his own daughter, a creative-writing major at N.Y.U (Scarlett Johansson), falls for his new office rival, and his wife (the fabulous Marg Helgenberger) is unexpectedly pregnant with a new baby-just when retirement finally beckons.

Things couldn’t look worse for a 51-year-old dinosaur who hates sushi, eschews the idea of luring clients with P.R. cocktail parties for rappers and Bill Clinton, and still believes that people are more important than demographics. Since Mr. Weitz’s sterling-silver screenplay is cliché-resistant, no corporate zombie is what he seems on the surface. Topher Grace seems to be in the catbird seat with his snappy computer-speak, irritating energy and blue status-symbol Porsche, but he has his own problems. He’s desperate for control in the boardroom, but is so lonely in the bedroom that he starts sleeping on his own office sofa at night to keep from going home to an empty apartment. So we have all of the ingredients for a Fred MacMurray sitcom: the old-timer who is adored by his entire staff but old-fashioned when it comes to modern corporate overkill, versus the cold, impersonal kid who knows technology but has no people skills. The film is so smart that nothing remains even, everyone changes, and everything ends in logic instead of Hollywood smile buttons.

The acting is uniformly crisp and never top-heavy, the situations are believable, and the laughs are rooted in reality. This is the hardest kind of comedy to play, and the kind at which Dennis Quaid is as natural as breathing. In Good Company is also that rare kind of movie that uses a familiar theme (office politics on the ruthless scale of corporate greed) and says something vital, pertinent, cogent and fresh about the subject. This movie has nuance, insight and a maturity beyond the years of its wonderful young director. At a time when companies are downsizing, scaling away, cutting back and selling off everything in the office for profit so fast that nobody dares to go to the men’s room, In Good Company also has a positive way of saying patience is its own reward. Big business is like New York weather: When things look bleak, just wait around long enough and everything will change. Paul Weitz is the grandson of the legendary agent Paul Kohner, whose clients included Billy Wilder, John Huston and Ingmar Bergman. His parents are the luminous actress Susan Kohner and fashion designer-novelist John Weitz. Some genes. Sanity is making a comeback, like good movies. Is it any surprise that he has plenty of both?