Million Dollar Baby vs. Napoleon Dynamite
I spoke to my mother on the phone the other day, and she told me that if there was one film I had to see when I visited home next, it was Million Dollar Baby, the new Clint Eastwood vehicle that has been all but awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor.
Normally when my mother says stupid things, I let it slide. But this time, I couldn't. Too much was at stake.
Like the Larry Siegel character from SCTV, I started pacing around my apartment, screaming at my mother: "Ma! You don't know what the hell you're talking about! Million Dollar Baby was 'great'? Will you listen to yourself? I can't believe I'm hearing this! My own goddamn mother! Ma, I got news for you: the movie was crap! Do you hear me? Crap! I can't believe you gave birth to me! A brain like yours! I'm ashamed, I'm embarrassed! I don't even know you anymore! That movie was loaded with so many goddamn cliches I thought that my tv was going to collapse from the weight! No ma, forget it! You just don't know what the hell you're talking about! I don't have time for you! Goodbye!"
We haven't spoken since.
There are a million reasons why Million Dollar Baby is wrong, but the biggest reason has to do with the third act of the film.
If you ever took a creative writing class as a student, you know that the most amateurish error that any beginning writer makes is killing his main characters when he doesn't know how else to end his story. It's the cheapest, lamest, dumbest way to resolve a character, and everyone knows it. Yet this trick is exactly what makes Million Dollar Baby allegedly so powerful. It has its sympathetic, gutsy heroine's neck broken by a cheap-shot in a boxing match, and from there, you have the long slide to the big question you know's coming: to unplug her from the respirator, or not to. The answer to this dilemma of course is, "choose what will lead to the biggest Kleenex sales."
In the first two acts, the movie operates on a fairly conventional, though not entirely unwatchable cliche level, when grouchy, over-the-hill boxing manager Clint Eastwood is approached by a relentlessly optimistic, over-the-hill, aspiring female boxer played by pluto-dyke Hillary Swank. She wants him to be her manager; he's grumpy and dismissive; it's a Hollywood film, so you just know that her optimism and hard work will soften his hard heart. And it does.
But just in case that cliche wasn't enough, another one is thrown in: Swank grew up without her white trash father, while Eastwood is estranged from his daughter. Hey, are they a match made in Hollywood Heaven or what?! Do ya think -- just maybe -- that the two will form a tight bond?
Finally, there are the racial politics of the film, which I still don't quite know how to absorb. There's a half-retarded white trash kid who always innocently uses the word "nigger" around Morgan Freeman, but gets picked on by a tough-guy black boxer and his Latino sidekick. Then there's Swank, whose foul white trash family is drawn straight from a blue state caricature. Don't get me wrong, I hate these people as much as the next person, but that doesn't mean you have to draw them as caricatures no less offensive than Jim Crow caricatures of Negroes. The movie thinks it's being brave by tackling racism, but all it's doing is offering a new set of racial cliches, particularly against white trash.
Swank boxes well, and her ascent is kind of fun to watch, as most boxing movies are. But then comes the third act, the broken neck -- the most amateurish, manipulative, cliched, idiotic plot twist of all. Swank winds up in a hospital, helpless, and now she has her daddy figure, grumpy Clint, there all the time, loving her, showering her with all the attention she never had. It's a chick fantasy, from chicks who never got the attention they wanted. The only possible way out of this awful cliche would be to exploit its potential comedy. If I were Clint, I would wheel Swank out of the hospital, with the gurgling vacuum cleaner tubes hooked into her neck, and bring her out to as many family restaurants as possible -- to make everyone uncomfortable. Heck, I'd even take her to see movies -- even this movie, for example. See how much people cry and feel sorry for her on the screen if, in reality, she's right next to them, gurgling away. The sympathy will turn to revulsion and nausea real quick-like.