Damn. And here I'd been hoping that Mystic River wasn't just a Penn-dependent fluke. As overpraised as The Aviator, Hotel Rwanda or any of the other self-important dramas racking up the noms this awards season, Clint Eastwood's latest is fresh evidence of how closely he depends on the secret prejudices of reviewers who would just as soon inhabit a world surfeited with he-man exercises like boxing pictures and westerns.
And Million Dollar Baby, for all its pretensions to elevating the genre, is seldom more than just another boxing movie. There's the grizzled old trainer who's withdrawn from the title circuit due to past disappointments. (That's Eastwood, sprinkling an extra layer of sand on his vocal cords because it's how those guys talk, y'know.) There's the enthusiastic younger fighter (Hilary Swank) whose drive to make something of herself brings her handpicked mentor out of his funk. And there's the wise narration that makes us all experts in the sweet science by which grown men and women pummel each other into curry paste. (That Morgan Freeman has been retained to provide this pseudo-poetic commentary will surprise the heck out of anyone who missed The Shawshank Redemption.)
From that slim yet representative recap, please don't insinuate that Baby is a bad movie, exactly; just an ordinary one that's further burdened by its punishing length (137 minutes) and obnoxious accompanying hype. To my eyes, the film has exactly two moments of real insight. In the first, Swank's simple pugilist gets a look at the fleabag of a room inhabited by her gym's kindly tender (Freeman). Without any intended irony, she pronounces the dreary digs "nice." The second sit-up-and-take-notice moment is a genuinely shocking development that transpires well into the story, just in time to make us wonder if the preceding narrative has been one big setup for a bold and sweeping deconstruction of sports mythology. Not really. At that turning point, the movie simply becomes a different kind of manipulation, one that piles misery upon misery in a shameless bid to control our hearts and minds.
The last act of Eastwood's new Baby, to put a fine point on it, is so suffused with overwrought tragedy that it makes the average Telemundo novela look like Rugrats in Paris. But suffering, as you may have noticed, is what wins awards.