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Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby, 2004

Boxing trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood) has become overly cautious and conservative as a coach, unwilling to endanger his fighters. This loses him his prize fighter (Mike Colter). Then into Frankie's gym walks Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a woman in her early 30s and from a rough background, determined to get Frankie to train her. Although he is hesitant, at the urging of his friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman) Frankie takes Maggie on as a fighter and she rises quickly through the ranks.

I was at the gym today, and I was doing a bench press series and I thought about the part in this movie where Maggie says that boxing is the only thing she feels happy doing and she refuses to give it up.

I think that in its best moments, this film captures what it is like to push yourself in a way that is both physical and mental, and the particular joy of doing so with someone to support you and drive you. Maggie is, according to Frankie and conventional wisdom, already over the hill in terms of becoming a great boxer, but she has found something that brings her happiness and she pursues it relentlessly. Watching Frankie get caught up in the magic and the hope of that is really fun.

I also enjoyed Morgan Freeman's Eddie, a character who understands the benefits of boxing beyond the wins and the losses. While I could take or leave the subplot about a mentally handicapped man (Jay Baruchel) who trains at the gym but is afraid to throw a punch at an opponent, I did enjoy the chance to see that side of Eddie's character.

I thought that Swank was very strong in the lead role, conveying Maggie's toughness and vulnerability and the way that they ebb and flow as she interacts with others. Her family has given her plenty of examples of bad behavior, and she is as much running away from that future as she is running toward anything.

Where I struggled a bit with the film was in all the places it leaned toward more Hollywood, popular fare. I don't love a voice over, but as it's Morgan Freeman I'll allow it. Where the film really fell flat for me, though, was in the portrayal of Maggie's family.

Quick, name every "white trash" stereotype you can think of! Cheating on welfare? Check! Babies out of wedlock? Check! Doing jail time? Check! Bad tattoos? Check! Obese? Check! Living in a trailer? Check! Greedy? Check! And I know that people like this do exist (I, um, I teach some of their children), but when taken as a group they feel like a caricature, especially in contrast with Swank's much more measured Maggie.

And if the presence of these characters wasn't bad enough, the film decides to use them as the catalyst for a minor climax and "stand up and cheer" moment when
WARNING: spoilers below
Maggie stands up to them and refuses to sign her assets over to them
. The major problem with this (aside from disrupting the rather interesting drama and character stuff that comes before and after it, is that later in the film (MAJOR SPOILERS)
WARNING: spoilers below
Maggie does not (that I remember) designate her assets to anyone, so when she dies, her next of kin is her horrible family and they end up with all her money and her house anyway!

I also wasn't sure about how I felt about Frankie's character arc. He is estranged from his daughter--and asks her forgiveness in letters she returns without reading--but the film never tells us why. The whole thing of Maggie becoming kind of like a surrogate daughter to him (and she is missing her father as well) is fine, but in the last act of the film I wasn't sure things landed quite right. The logic about Frankie's decisions and how and why he chooses to make them just weren't convincing to me. Maggie is the point of view character, but the character arc belongs to Frankie and I found it a bit underwhelming in the end. In the last act Eastwood's performance also begins to oscillate more between more naturalistic acting and this exaggerated "growly old man" and I found it kind of jarring.

Not a film I would have probably ever gotten around to (especially as I'd already had a significant element of the plot spoiled for me), but it's always interesting to watch something you'd never normally pick for yourself.