Sunday, February 13, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

By all the available evidence, Clint Eastwood is a thoughtful, intelligent person and is thoroughly dedicated to his craft. Even his politics have become more nuanced and interesting over the years. What he is not is a good actor or director.
Eastwood's obvious care and dedication aren't enough.
Million Dollar Baby, like its predecessor, last year's Mystic River and other Eastwood films going back more than 30 years, is a heavy-handed piece of work. The story of an aging fight manager and the female boxer he takes on is square and stolid, drab even. It's paced like a dirge, with mostly tedious dialogue that does nothing to relieve the heaviness.
Eastwood's acting is mostly one-note. He has always been a wonderful physical specimen for the film, and in his old age his graggy face and pained eyes are a powerful image. But he doesn't suggest the emotional turmoil of his character. And his voice doesn't have the shades and nuance the role requires. I kept wondering how Paul Newman, who is a few years older than Eastwood, might have played the part, or the late-career Burt Lancaster, who might have brought more heft to it.
Visually, it's a hideous piece of film. The predominant color throughout is a mildewy gray-green, which may be meant to suggest the sweaty, smelly milieu of the gym, but instead makes the picture look as if it were shot with a cheap 8-millimeter home movie camera from the 1950s. There's no variation -- the gym, the characters' apartments, the exteriors in L.A., London -- all are rendered in the same gray-green tones. Even Eastwood's and Freeman's gray hair takes on the tint. It's awful.
What does work is the handling of the central moral issue -- the one that has turned this film into a political hot potato. It is worked out with both an ear for the ethical complexities, and a real sensitivity to the human suffering of the characters. The final quarter of the film builds tension and interest in a way the lead-in has not. It makes it almost worth sitting through.