If you haven’t yet seen Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby and have every intention of doing so, I respectfully advise you to read no further. Just save this column for after you’ve seen it, because I intend to explain why-unlike my esteemed colleagues-I don’t share their enthusiasm for this film. So I’m going to have to give away more than a few plot details in order to support my case.
Let me begin by saying that no movie in my memory has depressed me more than Million Dollar Baby. I saw it twice, first at an early screening and later on DVD, and though I was not as depressed the second time, it still left me feeling pretty grim.
Adapted from a screenplay by Paul Haggis, Million Dollar Baby is based on a collection of stories entitled Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner, by veteran boxing cut-man F.X. Toole. Mr. Eastwood, a remarkably energetic 74, plays grizzled fight trainer Frankie Dunn. Along with his buddy and onetime fighter Eddie (Scrap) Dupris, played by Morgan Freeman, Frankie runs an old-timers’ gym in downtown Los Angeles, which also doubles as the place that Scrap sleeps. The two buddies’ petty-squabbling camaraderie resembles that of an old married couple, much like their magically bonded gunfighters in Mr. Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992).
The picture begins with Frankie managing a promising young heavyweight, Big Willie Little (Mike Colter), but after several impressive victories, Big Willie walks out on Frankie because the manager is reluctant to set up a title fight. One of the many demons in Frankie’s guilt-ridden past is Scrap’s partial blindness, incurred when Frankie managed him in a title fight that ended Scrap’s boxing career. Another demon: the many letters returned unopened from Frankie’s estranged daughter, to whom he nonetheless keeps writing regularly. Frankie virtually besieges Father Horvak (Brian O’Byrne), his parish priest, for advice on suitably atoning for his past sins, with studying to read W.B. Yeats in the original Gaelic being one of his atonement rituals.
In line with the lower-class sociology of boxing, the fighters in the gym are either black or Latino-at least until Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) shows up. She begins working inexpertly on a punching bag, with the avowed intention of becoming a boxing champion under Frankie’s tutelage. Leaving her trailer-park-trash family to work for pennies and leftovers as a waitress in a cheap restaurant, Maggie’s determined to make good in the ring. Frankie tries to discourage her by pointing out that, at 33, she’s much too old to begin training as a fighter. But with Scrap’s help, Maggie perseveres to the point where she starts winning club fights. Of course, a surrogate father-daughter relationship springs up between Frankie and Maggie-he even devises the shrewd promotional gimmick of presenting her as a proud Irish fighter to secure an ethnic fan base.
And then the downfall. The first sour note is struck when Maggie spends some of her earnings to buy her mother and siblings a new house. Margo Martindale, as Maggie’s mother, should win some sort of award for all-time movie mother from hell; despite her daughter’s generosity, she sneeringly taunts Maggie that everyone laughs at her for the way she earns a living.
Still, there’s some consolation in Maggie’s triumphant world tour, with people cheering for her everywhere she goes. When she returns to America, Maggie’s in prime form for a championship bout against an opponent who fights so dirty that she makes Mike Tyson look like a choirboy. The fight gets underway, and Maggie seems to be winning-until, in an unguarded moment after the bell’s rung, her opponent slugs her with a sucker punch so ferocious that it sends Maggie reeling across the ring, her head crashing into the stool that Frankie pulls up after the bell.
Maggie is now a basket case, sucking oxygen from a tube in a hospital bed. She pleads with Frankie to help end her life. Adding to the horror, Monster Mom shows up along with her entire greedy brood and a contract-wielding lawyer to sign all of Maggie’s earnings over to her “family.” “You lost, darlin’, you lost,” says the mom, reducing her daughter to total humiliation. When Maggie is unable to sign the contract-her hands are paralyzed-her mother obligingly places the pen in her mouth, after which Maggie comes into her own by spitting out the pen, cursing the entire family and sending them scurrying out of the hospital like rats from a sinking ship.
What I found most perplexing about the tragic turn of events was how a championship fight that ended in a quasi-criminal act fails to illicit any repercussions or protests, by Frankie or anyone else. I know John F. Kennedy said that life was unfair long before he was assassinated, and I know film critics have been conditioned to condemn happy endings, but does that warrant such excessive malignancy?
What’s amused and frustrated me somewhat is how critics have scrupulously avoided going into detail on the sudden pile-up of misfortunes that supposedly makes Mr. Eastwood’s film so moving. Of course, they don’t want to spoil the fun for the audience, who are left wincing over the sudden onset of terminal pain and sorrow.
But I would suggest that to describe the final outcome as “tragedy,” as some critics have done, is a gross misstatement. Tragedies don’t depress me, because they are carefully constructed to avoid the vagaries of blind accident and random evil.
In the end, Frankie accedes to Maggie’s pleas and facilitates her suicide-after which, according to Scrap’s narration, Frankie disappears from view, never to be seen again. The thorny issue of mercy killing becomes something of an anticlimax next to the oppressive conjunction of an evil fighter and a monster mother-I would argue that nothing in the narrative prepares us for such a disastrous dénouement, though some critics claim to have discerned an ominous darkening of the texture of the film as it seemed to be rollicking along on its Rocky-like inspirational way. I beg to differ as I rest my case against Million Dollar Baby. This is not to say that I wish to demean the work of Mr. Eastwood, Mr. Freeman and Ms. Swank: They are all excellent in what is, in my perhaps ultra-Aristotelian view, a losing cause.
Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside (in Spanish, with English subtitles), based on Ramón Sampedro’s book Letters from Hell, also tells the story of a handicapped protagonist wishing to terminate his life in order to die with dignity. But whereas Million Dollar Baby left me despondent, The Sea Inside left me exhilarated. So my problem is not with the complex feelings involved in the desire of the afflicted to die with dignity, but in how the story of the death-seeker is told. Where Million Dollar Baby sinks into the pit of bottomless despair, The Sea Inside soars to the fantastically romantic heights of love between a man and a woman. And when I say “soar,” I mean it literally to describe one of the greatest love scenes in the history of the cinema.
Javier Bardem plays Ramón Sampedro, a 55-year-old quadriplegic who was left paralyzed after a diving accident 30 years earlier. In his bedridden state, he spends years petitioning the secular authorities in Spain to give him the right to terminate his life with dignity.
The love scene to which I referred occurs after he falls in love with Belén Rueda’s Julia, a lawyer who has come to help him file his judicial plea. Julia is partially handicapped herself, using a cane to move about because of a degenerative disease. She is married, and Ramón is bed-ridden, but they nevertheless attain an unprecedented degree of spiritual rapport.
Then, one day, to the stirring melody of Giacomo Puccini’s aria “I shall conquer” from Turandot, Ramón rises magically from his bed, pulls it away from the window so as to get a running start, and flies through the window to the seashore, where he meets Julia for a passionate embrace. There is more than a little directorial audacity in this dream-like incursion into the realms that Blaise Pascal best summed up in the aphorism “The heart has its reasons.” This audacity would seem to come naturally to a director whose earlier oeuvre was drenched in otherworldliness, in films like Thesis (1996), Open Your Eyes (1997) and The Others (2001).
There are two other women in Ramón’s physically but not emotionally curtailed existence: Lola Dueñas’ Rosa, a volcanically mixed-up and messed-up mother of two, who sees in Ramón a man to whom she can pour out her heart without having it trampled in the mud, and Mabel Rivera’s Manuela, Ramón’s sister-in-law, who is devoted more to Ramón’s needs than to the needs of her own family. The only question (and it is eventually answered) is which of these women loves him enough to satisfy his heart’s desire, and thus be parted from him forever.
Throughout his seemingly endless ordeal, Mr. Bardem’s Ramón, like his real-life counterpart, remains a cheerfully smiling presence to the people who flock to his bedside to be cheered up from their own various malaises. This joyous stoicism of Ramón is rendered brilliantly by Mr. Bardem, currently one of the world’s great actors.
Maid in L.A.
James L. Brooks’ Spanglish, from his own screenplay, could be charged with reverse bigotry for the lopsided contrast it makes between a Mexican nanny named Flor (Paz Vega) and her wealthy Los Angeles employer, Deborah Clasky (Téa Leoni). Indeed, Mr. Brooks directs Ms. Leoni, an actress who is no stranger to subtlety, in the same, shrill single note for almost the entire film. The critics, and I presume the public, are virtually forced to hate her character-though, when you think about it, she never does anything really malicious, except possibly buying clothes a few sizes too small for her chubby daughter, Bernice (Sarah Steele). By contrast, Flor, the good cop, kindly sews an outfit for Bernice that fits perfectly.
Adam Sandler plays Deborah’s hapless husband, John Clasky, a world-class celebrity chef. In a reversal of type, Mr. Sandler plays a Casper Milquetoast character, responding invariably with gentleness and sensitivity to Deborah’s most outrageous outbursts. Also adding to the chaos in the household is Deborah’s cheerfully heavy-drinking mother, Evelyn (Cloris Leachman). The story is actually narrated by Flor’s precocious daughter, Christina (Shelbie Bruce), in a flash-forward to her application to Princeton despite her illegal-immigrant background.
But just when I was about to write off Mr. Brooks’ film as that of a wealthy, self-hating do-gooder with a weakness for Latino babes, he suddenly began switching his point of view to reveal that the source of Deborah’s angst had much to do with her failed career and her unhappy childhood with a drunkenly promiscuous mother.
In one of the funniest scenes ever of English-speaking and Spanish-speaking people trying to communicate-a scene which shows how resourceful a child actress Ms. Bruce is-Christina not only translates for her mother, but also improvises gestures and movements to dramatize the emotional content of her mother’s words. This howl of a scene is alone worth the price of admission. I also liked the scene in which Deborah makes Flor look a bit foolish trying to outrun her on the way home, with the overachieving Deborah, for once, not even realizing that she’s being challenged.
Still, it’s no accident that “Span-” precedes “-glish” in this piece of special pleading for the immigrant population. The film gets better as it goes along, however, and all the characters, including Deborah, become more interesting and appealing as we get to know them better. Come to think of it, Mr. Brooks has always had a tendency to become shrill, even in his best movies like Terms of Endearment (1983) and Broadcast News (1987). Spanglish is far from his best, but it is good enough for these generally witless times.
An Italian Classic
Luchino Visconti (1906-1976) adapted Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s penetrating historical novel of Sicily in 1860 into The Leopard, one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, as well as one of the most politically profound. The Film Forum is showing the entire uncut Italian version-195 minutes, including the 45-minute concluding ballroom scene, which encapsulates all the themes of the film in lavish style as the life of a man slowly fades away. With Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale, Serge Regianni and Paolo Stoppa (Jan. 12 to 20).
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