Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Million Dollar Baby d. Clint Eastwood, s.w. Paul Haggis

The first sign was the swearing priest. Sure, I imagine the majority of priests/pastors/etc. curse/have cursed, but to feature this so prominently is to beg agape jaws. Movies are not real life; a character is not a person. A character is, on the basic level, a cipher. The priest's name isn't Father O'Brien or James Duffy or any such thing - the priest's name is priest. We only know him by his work, by his action constricted to the narrative space. People don't work like this, characters do. But the priest is a sort of representative for all priests. So, when this particular priest - signifier for the general priest - calls Clint Eastwood's character a "fucking pagan," warning lights should go off. Do priests talk like this? Ignoring plausibility, this is just sloppy, sensationalist writing. Screenwriter Paul Haggis clearly wants to "get you," to make you squirm, to make you say, "Yeah, I hadn't thought about it like that. Thanks, Paul - you're a smart guy." The problem is that it isn't like that. And it shouldn't be like that.

This is the general problem with the entire film.

Before going on, I feel like I should warn you. I'm going to talk about plot - explicitly. I do not, however, consider this a spoiler. I think of it as a favor. You're on the tasty end of a favor. After reading this, hopefully, you will not see Million Dollar Baby; forewarned, you'll simply pass it by at the video store, at the second-run theater, at Netflix and, instead, pick up something, again hopefully, better.

For a good understanding of what's wrong - and right - with the first 1:30:00 of the film, go here. For an understanding of what is wrong with the last forty minutes of the film - almost never right - stay where you're at.

The twist is that the wunderkind boxer, Maggie (Hillary Swank), becomes a quadriplegic. Like Dan says in the review linked above - btw: you should really read it; in fact, I'm going to assume you've done so - her character is muddled to begin with. She is simply too likable to be taken seriously as the knockout machine she is. Same goes for the film: it is simply too likable as a boxing picture to become this garbled, platforming, social injustice mess. Not to say that it's a great film to begin with, but at least it wouldn't be reprehensible. All the important moments in the film call attention to themselves; rather than work fluidly with the vehicle of the film, the tenor advertises itself much too loudly, making what might work as subtlety become absolutely amateur. Simply put: the twist is in no way earned.

Frankie Dunn (Eastwood; it's a pun, get it?) reads Yeats because, I don't know, literary allusions are cool? Really, he seems to read it only so that a) an endearing (sarcastic) Gaelic nickname can be rationally affixed to Maggie's boxing persona, which leads to a1) where the name is revealed to mean "my darling, my blood" and b) an equally endearing (ibid.) moment can occur between Frankie and Maggie when he reads her the first stanza from Yeats' poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." There are plenty of moments like these, where moments from early in the film return, laden with pathos and meaning. Each moment isn't a problem in and of itself, but when they're stacked neatly on top of each other, designed to evoke emotion (just add Kleenex!), the worst type of hack screenwriting is in play. Haggis places the characters in a conversation, contrived, wherein Maggie tells Frankie a story about her father killing their pet dog when the dog's legs wouldn't work anymore. The story returns, neatly apropos for Maggie's situation. "Frankie," she pleads, "do with me what my daddy did with my dog." Are we really to believe that everything falls so neatly in line? The problem isn't with believability, it's with the hamfisted, easy contrivances that populate the screenplay.

Then Maggie's backwoods family shows up to visit her in the hospital. First, they check into their hotel and peruse the sites (Disneyland, Universal Studios, and other So-Cal amusements, I imagine). What they don't do is see Maggie first thing. They wait six days. Haggis makes this very clear. Very very clear. When they do visit, they operate within stock trailer-trash archetypes: obese mother; young, child-bearing daughter in too-short shorts; fresh outta' prison brother; slimy lawyer in tow. They want not to say hello, not to wish Maggie well, but to get her to sign - with PEN IN MOUTH (I shit you not) - a legal document that gives all her fight money to her family. "Mommy, did you see my fight?" Maggie asks. "Did I do good?" Her mom replies, "You lost." Families operate like this, says Haggis. But these aren't families - these are ridiculous parodies and exaggerations supposedly ciphering for families.

Frankie, although better written than Maggie, isn't free of these terrible machinations, either. In fact, they tend to work doubletime, commenting on both him and his ingenue. Every day, for 23 years, he attends the church where the aforementioned pastor preaches. We're led to believe Frankie is in the midst of some distended crisis of faith. But what is it? Does it have to do with the box of letters labeled "return to sender," one of which he receives each week from his estranged daughter? Probably. I assume it must be; we're given no other reason. (I'm going to sidestep, for space's sake, the whole distortion of religion that takes place here.) And does "my darling, my blood" mean that Maggie is like his new daughter, replacing his lost one? Still, more hackneyed plot contrivances are laid thick: we find out that Maggie, just to make her more pitiful, was born premature and never got an education. We learn that Morgan Freeman's narration is actually A LETTER (again, I shit you not) to FRANKIE'S DAUGHTER (how could I make this up?) (Aside: Freeman's performance is the sole consistent highlight in the film - had Mark Wahlberg and Jude Law and Clive Owen not performed in '04, Freeman would have definitely deserved that Oscar.) Why write a letter? Because Frankie, following his touching (ibid.) euthanizing of Maggie, is AWOL. And maybe this is just the thing - killing a girl - that will bring father and daughter together again.

The last shot finds Frankie eating lemon pie in a joint near Maggie's hometown, a place he considered buying earlier in the film. What's he thinking? I imagine that, if Paul Haggis is the one piloting Frankie's thoughts, he's thinking about how appropriate and perfect this pie-eating is - it's about the past, it's about the present, it's about the future. It's about Maggie; it's about Frankie. What he's not thinking about is how ridiculously contrived it is.

Final aside: Paul Haggis is the worst screenwriter working in Hollywood today. I imagine you could find others with less imagination, but none match Haggis in his ability to dupe otherwise smart people into mistaking a terrible hack-job for a piece of art. Proof? The last two Oscars. Thankfully, he now does double-duty, directing his own horrid scripts. No need, any longer, to bring another down with you, right Paul?