Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is the most acclaimed film of 2004; no other release united middlebrow mainstream critics, elitist film snobs and Hollywood establishment awards-givers in such a gushing show of admiration. With the film finally making its way to Vegas, it's likely plenty of people are dying to know whether it lives up to the hype.
I'll save you the suspense: It doesn't. As much as anyone, I was hoping to love what many have hailed as Eastwood's masterpiece. His last film, 2003's Mystic River, was a layered and well-acted take on a familiar genre (the murder mystery), and many of Eastwood's other great films have been variations on other well-worn genres (most often the western). Million Dollar Baby, too, treads familiar territory, at least for most of its running time, trotting out the old inspirational sports story, in which the underdog athlete works really hard to overcome impossible odds and triumph in some sort of competitive field (in this case, boxing).
Granted, it comes across with more class and dignity than the average, clichéd inspirational sports flick. A trio of excellent actors—Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman and Eastwood himself—imbue Paul Haggis' script, taken from stories by boxing trainer F.X. Toole, with a gravity it probably didn't have on the page. And Eastwood is a confident director, creating a sense of the grim and gritty world of low-level boxing through dark production design and cinematography.
Yet despite these polishes, what's underneath is still a subpar variation on a common theme. Swank's Maggie Fitzgerald is, at 31, over the hill for a boxer and has barely even fought professionally. She shows up at the LA gym run by trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), whose latest protégé just quit on him. As soon as Maggie asks Frankie to train her and he refuses, calling her "girly," you know exactly what's going to happen: Maggie will wear down Frankie's resolve, he'll begrudgingly agree to train her, she'll turn out to be a natural talent, they'll become friends and eventually become inseparable.
It's no spoiler to tell you that this is in fact what happens, recalling decades of similar films, including Swank's own The Next Karate Kid, perhaps not the first thing she'd hope to remind audiences of. Frankie has an estranged daughter and an angry relationship with God, both of which he works on by going to Mass every day. Maggie's family, a group of white-trash stereotypes living in a trailer in Missouri, doesn't approve of her pugilistic ambitions, so it's natural (and obvious) that Frankie and Maggie develop a father-daughter dynamic.
All of the obviousness is narrated by Frankie's best friend and his gym's caretaker, a former boxer nicknamed Scrap (Freeman). Giving the same "wise, old sage" performance he gave in The Shawshank Redemption, right down to the homey bits of wisdom in the voice-overs, Freeman is warm and entertaining, but clearly coasting. Having played both God and the president of the United States, he can make the nuggets of advice that Scrap doles out sound far more meaningful than they really are.
About 45 minutes before the movie ends, something unpredictable does happen, but to reveal it here would be a disservice to the story Eastwood tells in the film's final third. It changes the story entirely and has the potential to pan out into something interesting. But there's not nearly enough time to explore the ramifications, so the final part of the movie feels rushed, with far more emotional baggage than Eastwood can properly deal with in the time he's allowed himself. Haggis' script is based on "stories" by Toole, and you can see how several different narratives have been grafted together.
While Eastwood and Swank do their best to make Maggie and Frankie's relationship feel real, the characters on the margins are mostly crude caricatures, especially Maggie's trailer-dwelling family and a scrawny boxer with a grating hick accent who trains at Frankie's gym and serves only to provide a triumphant moment for Scrap exactly when he needs it. The entire film is full of moments like this, false triumphs that are predictable and unearned, coming at precisely the prescribed moments. Although those triumphs are ultimately tempered by tragedy, it ends up feeling like overcompensation, and equally unearned.
It's not hard to imagine long-time Eastwood fans finding something to like about Million Dollar Baby, as it finds the old master going through plenty of the familiar tricks in his book. But it's far from being the classic for the ages so many critics have deemed it, and it's strange that so many have mistaken its dull sincerity for something profound and moving.