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Kick the 'Baby'

Disregard the awards and accolades: 'Million Dollar Baby' is nothing more than manipulative mediocrity

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Before I heap venom upon this steaming pile of dung, I should note that many people seem to love Million Dollar Baby. Test audiences ate it up; it's been nominated for seven Academy Awards, and though it's received mixed advance critical notice, more than a few professional movie-viewers have drooled in their laps as they lavished praise upon this latest vanity piece from Clint Eastwood.

Shockingly, it's precisely the kind of pre-fab, manipulative mediocrity that tends to get a lot of love, but in this case, instead of just settling for pushing all the standard buttons, director Eastwood also squirts out some truly horrible voice-over narration and acting styles that seems like they came from a failed parody of a Busby Berkeley musical.

Million Dollar Baby stars Hilary Swank, who'll probably get an Oscar for her ridiculous, 1930s Midwestern accent, and for the fact that she has to say things like, "Ah don't rightly know, sir," without laughing.

She also has to constantly bug boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to take her on, even though she's a "girl." That's right; it's the story of the girl who wants to box, and the trainer who keeps saying "I don't train girls." And yet, instead of finding a trainer who does train "girls" (note: She's supposed to be in her 30s when the movie starts), she keeps pestering him in her stick-to-it, never-say-die Midwestern way until, shockingly--and in contradiction to everything we've come to expect--Mr. Dunn agrees to train her! What a moment that is!

It is, in fact, exactly the moment you've seen in a million other movies, as Dunn tries to act tough while his little-old-man heart melts at the sight of Swank batting away at a speed bag.

While this alone would make for a horrible film, what really brings Million Dollar Baby down to the sub-basement of the crappy movie warehouse is the ungodly voice-over dialogue that poor Morgan Freeman is saddled with. Everything he says is an insipid platitude, including such groaners as, "Show me a man who's nothing but heart, and I'll show you a man who's gonna take a beating," "If there's magic in boxing, it's the magic of (fill in your own ending here ... just about anything will do)" and the one he keeps repeating as though it were especially deep: "In boxing, everything is backwards." This is dialogue as written by someone who's given up thinking in favor of aping the general form of aphorisms. Not that these phrases are aphorisms; they just look like them, without the added difficulty of actually meaning anything. Listening to this tripe is like being berated by a fifth-grade gym coach who has just taken 40 hits of Valium after 40 blows to the head.

The narration covers much of the first half of the film, in spite of the fact that there's action taking place on screen. Note to screenwriters: If you're going to have someone just tell the audience what's happening, don't make a movie; make a radio play.

Luckily, the narration cuts out somewhere in the middle, although it rises up again in the end. Still, the way it vanishes makes it seem like Eastwood realized he'd made a mistake, but didn't feel like going back to fix the first half. It's haphazard and lazy, not unlike the film's plot, which is just a rewrite of the precisely one zillion other boxing movies wherein the underdog overcomes adversity to rise to the top.

And, of course, as in all these movies, Swank just wants her shot at the champ. Strangely, the champ is not a pleasant and affable woman who welcomes challengers in the open-armed manner that we were told we'd be welcomed into Iraq. Rather, she welcomes them in the way that heavily armed insurgents continue to welcome us into Iraq.

She's also pure evil, and--because Million Dollar Baby is a narrow-minded cliché-fest--she's also a goddamn foreigner. It's at the point when the battle with the champ occurs that Million Dollar Baby mercifully steers slightly off course from its fill-in-the-blanks plot. Unfortunately, this third act is not any better than the first two, but at least it's different.

Strangely, I really can't claim that Hilary Swank is bad in this, in spite of how annoying her performance is. It's a tremendously cohesive and completely seamless performance. If it was possible that anyone on Earth had ever acted anything like this, you'd fully believe that Swank was that person. It's just that the act that's been foisted upon her by the script and directing is an irritating and phony parody of a Midwesterner from 1930. She's basically a Hollywood movie version of an Okie. It's strangely impressive, as if you were to suddenly find out that Carrot Top was actually a classically trained, Oxford-educated thespian who had been playing the part of a clueless comedian for the last 15 years. You'd no doubt be impressed with the skill, but still not interested in watching the act.

Morgan Freeman is also good in exactly the same way, spouting his awful pre-fab dialogorrhea into the ether and ambling about in a perfect recreation of the stereotype of a noble, old boxer. Only Clint Eastwood is good enough to suck in his acting here, but it's standard Eastwood, so if you loved him in Any Which Way But Loose, you're sure to enjoy his wood-faced emoting in this one.

In the end, if you want something that is in no way challenging but that will attempt to jerk the tears out of your eyes with a four-clamp, six-axle, steam-powered tear-jerking machine, then you're sure to love Million Dollar Baby. If you want to see interesting, unconventional filmmaking that adds something to the culture, I'd recommend you check out The Assassination of Richard Nixon, also at local theaters and not getting anything like the attention it deserves.

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