Beating up Million Dollar Baby.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Jan. 28 2005 3:25 PM

Beating Up Baby

Clint Eastwood, in the line of fire; plus, Hide and Seek.

Being Julian: Yesterday I asked for corrections, and here's a big one. Although I'm not a cabaret critic and the entry below was meant to be about Martha Plimpton, Rhonda Lieberman feels, with some justification, that I slighted Plimpton's partner, Julian Fleisher: "As a longtime fan of Fleisher's," she writes, "I think you should know that he's been crafting this act (and its distinctive song stylings and wit) since the mid-'90s. Martha—as even she had the good grace to say from the stage—just recently came along and stepped into what was his show." My apologies.

Beating Up Baby:Now that Million Dollar Baby has won a slew of Oscar nominations and Clint Eastwood is closing in on Martin Scorsese as the favorite for the best director prize, it's worth touching on the ticklish issue of the movie's ending. Critics are in a no-win position here: We can't really grapple with the film without revealing its most brutal plot turn, but to "spoil" the ending would be to incur the wrath of millions.

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So stop here if you haven't seen the movie. Read on if you have, or you don't care to, or you haven't and want to know what's in store for you.

Disabled organizations around the country—among them Chicago's Not Dead Yet—have begun a campaign against Million Dollar Baby. In the film, the quadriplegic Maggie compares herself to an old, sick dog that needs to be taken out to the woods and shot, and the movie endorses that view. The weirdly belligerent, foul-mouthed priest argues (unconvincingly) that euthanasia is a sin, but the film's true priest—its spiritual conscience, Eddie (Morgan Freeman)—gives Eastwood's Frankie his blessing to finish her off.

You could argue that Million Dollar Baby is not offering Maggie's fate as a prescription: It's one particular young woman in one particular place in one particular story—which some critics have maintained is an allegory with boxing as its frame. I'm a literal-minded guy, though, and have a hard time getting past the wrong and crudely manipulative notes on the surface. Isn't it odd that this million-dollar baby (a boxing cover girl, a celebrity, a near-world champion) is in a hospital room with no flowers or cards, no hovering fans, no doctors or counselors committed to helping her with her transition? Her trailer-trash family is cartoonishly venal: They don't even pretend to offer sympathy. (Couldn't just one of her relatives have been genuinely distraught?) Last year, Christopher Reeve went out like a champ, but Eastwood's movie is so threadbare, underpopulated, and shameless that there really is nothing for the saintly martyred Maggie (also, supposedly, a celebrity) to live for. She took on the world with shining eyes and was broken without mercy.

I don't buy the view of the disabled community that the notoriously vindictive Eastwood is getting revenge for having been sued under the Americans With Disabilities Act over access to a hotel he owns in Carmel, Calif.—although Michael Miner in the Chicago Reader notes that Eastwood later testified before Congress for a change in the law that many activists felt would gut it. Eastwood didn't write the screenplay (Paul Haggis did) or the stories it was based on. This isn't about revenge; it's about insensitivity and opportunism, as well as an aesthetic that lends itself to fatalism—a man is what he is, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, etc.

I loved The Sea Inside for Javier Bardem's performance, but I'm also troubled by its view that euthanasia should be sanctioned by the government. It's possible that an individual has a moral right to take his or her own life, but the legal hurdles should be left in place. The last thing we should want is for a disabled or terminally ill person to feel pressure to ease the emotional or financial burden on family members—or for family members to apply that pressure. And as Not Dead Yet wants you to know … well, the name says it all. ... 12:23 p.m. PT

Thursday, Jan. 27, 2004

In Hide and Seek (20th Century Fox), Dakota Fanning plays Emily, a little girl who views her mom (Amy Irving) in a blood-filled bathtub with her wrists slit; shortly thereafter, she acquires an "imaginary friend" named Charlie. As Charlie grows more and more obscene and violent, the questions are suddenly urgent: Is Charlie in her head—and has the affectless, grief-stricken girl become a schizoid sociopath? Or is Charlie a real—and ferociously angry—poltergeist? Or is Charlie human—a skulking neighbor, a friend, or a Charles Manson-like stranger? I never knew—and neither did Emily's psychologist father (Robert De Niro), who moves her to the country to start over but finds the past howling at him from every cranny of the isolated old house.

The movie is OK for a January horror picture, but given the premise and the cast—which includes Famke Janssen, Elisabeth Shue, Dylan Baker, and Melissa Leo—it should wring you out emotionally as it's scaring you witless. The plodding director, John Polson, reliably telegraphs the big boos, and the next time I see an actor gingerly open a cupboard and get knocked back by an overamplified screeching cat, I'm walking. Hide and Seek cheats a bit, but it's at least consistently creepy, full of gray light; cawing crows; bare, twisty branches through the windows; and the occasional view from behind the slats in the door of the little girl's closet. Charlie is apparently jealous of Emily's dolls, and their savaged faces are the movie's most disturbing images.

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