Who would have thought a movie about a feisty female boxer and her quirky Gaelic speaking coach could warp itself into a promotion for euthanasia? Million Dollar Baby, directed by Clint Eastwood (who also stars in it), somehow manages it.
Maggie Fitzgerald, played by Hilary Swank, is the “million dollar baby.” A full-time waitress from a white trash family, the only thing keeping her moving is her dream of becoming a champion boxer. She begins going to Frankie Dunn’s (Clint Eastwood) gym in the hopes that he will be her trainer. At first he shuns her, saying that he only trains men. But after Dunn’s champion boxer leaves him for another manager, he reconsiders.
Though Maggie is 31 years old, which is typically much too old to begin a career in boxing, she soon demonstrates a natural talent for it. As Maggie’s boxing improves, her relationship with Dunn intensifies. Everything goes smoothly until halfway through the movie when the plot takes a dramatic turn, and the focus shifts from boxing to personal relationships (and the benefits of euthanasia).
The relationships between the characters in this film are wonderfully crafted. Dunn is a crusty old man whose main passion in life is boxing. He is also a devout Catholic and somewhat of a scholar – we often see him practicing Gaelic and reading T.S. Eliot. His best friend is Eddie Dupris, played by Morgan Freeman. Dunn and Dupris go way back to the days when Dupris was a boxing champion and Dunn his manager. Though their dialogue is dominated by sarcasm and ridicule, it is evident that a steady bond exists between the men.
But the most important relationship is that of Dunn and Maggie. Though he is initially reluctant to even consider training her, their relationship soon escalates to that of a father and daughter. Many years ago Dunn had a mysterious falling out with his daughter. Maggie seems to take the place of this other child in Dunn’s eyes. Indeed, at times one wonders if their relationship will escalate to another level. Thankfully it does not.
Margo Martindale deserves praise for her portrayal of Maggie’s 300-pound lazy mother, who is one of the most despicable characters in any movie I have lately seen. When Maggie uses her boxing earnings to buy her mother a new house (so she will not have to live in a trailer park anymore), Mrs. Fitzgerald is furious because she fears the government will take away her welfare.
In spite of superb acting, the movie still fails in one area: it is too ambitious. As a sports movie, it is thrilling; as a study of personal relationships, it is moving. But when it takes on a political agenda in the second half, it suddenly becomes awkward and wearisome. When the credits came up I felt as if I had just seen halves of two different movies, each with its merits, but certainly not belonging to part of the same film.
Another frustration arises in the film’s lack of resolution. Probably Clint Eastwood had some deeply artistic reason for failing to resolve some of the most important issues of the film – such as the cause of the problems between him and his daughter, and if they ever worked it out, and other things I cannot state without giving away the plot – but I could not discover it.