MILLION DOLLAR BABY
Despite featuring a few peripheral figures, Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby is essentially a three-character mood piece, yet Eastwood, co-stars Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, and screenwriter Paul Haggis invest the material with so much emotional and intellectual accuracy that the results border on the overwhelming.
For all the marvelous work of his collaborators, though, the film is a personal apex for Mr. Eastwood; to paraphrase Pauline Kael, it's the work of his life - to date. I'm not the world's biggest believer in the auteurist theory, but there's little denying that the brilliance of Million Dollar Baby rests squarely on the shoulders of the great squinty one - he also co-produced and composed the movie's haunting score - whose Mystic River was 2003's finest fictional drama and who tops that achievement with his latest endeavor. (Has any filmmaker, with the exception of Coppola and the first two Godfather movies, ever scored such a powerful back-to-back combo?) Offhand, I can't think of another director who has pulled off what Eastwood does here. He has taken a genre staple - the boxing drama - and infused it with such depth of feeling that, in addition to both subverting and celebrating its genre trappings, Million Dollar Baby stands as an uncommonly fine meditation on hope, aging, dreams, friendship, death, sin, salvation; it's as though Eastwood, who directed this marvelous work at the age of 73, were infusing a lifetime's worth of experiences into the span of 130 minutes. And damned if he doesn't pull it off.
In strict genre terms, Baby's story is simple: An aging trainer takes on a female boxer, and shapes her into a champion. (Despite the gender spin, that's nothing you wouldn't see in any boxing flick from the '30s, and Baby even includes one of that era's beloved boxing-flick staples: the slow-witted yokel, played here by Jay Baruchel, who hangs around the gym in the hopes of getting his title shot.) Yet the film is so much more than the sum of its plotlines. It's staggeringly well-acted - Swank's nearly feral take on her role is invigorating, Freeman's beautiful focus is used to extraordinary effect, and Eastwood himself delivers the most humane, mature work of his career - and smartly written, and Eastwood's staging and, especially, use of fade-outs are sublime. (Baby's ending rivals Before Sunset's as the finale of the year.)
But perhaps the highest compliment I can give Million Dollar Baby is that it's the type of movie that humbles you as a writer, for fear that too many words about it will lessen its impact, and too few can't possibly do it justice. You want to talk about the stunning simplicity of Eastwood's and Freeman's scenes - they're effortlessly convincing as best friends, and make growing older look like the coolest thing in the world - and Swank's sad-eyed self-awareness and Margo Martindale's shattering turn as Swank's mother and the adrenalin rush of the fight scenes and the exquisite cinematography that often gives this project, shot in color, the feel of black-and-white ... but you quickly find yourself running out of superlatives. So instead, you merely write:
Million Dollar Baby is 2004's crowning dramatic achievement.
(Endnote: Much, perhaps too much, has been made in the press about The Big Twist that occurs during Million Dollar Baby's final third - which is the reason for me being so circumspect about divulging too much information - and it must be said that Baby's narrative spin is in no way used as a "Gotcha!" effect; it's not a "Bruce Willis is really dead!" or "Brad Pitt doesn't really exist!" moment. The surprises in Baby are absolutely essential to the storyline - its surprises are the point of the movie. What happens in the final third of Million Dollar Baby isn't a Big Twist. It's what used to be called Good Storytelling, and it's something that American movies could certainly use more of.)
I shed quite a few tears at Million Dollar Baby, but I was even more of a wreck during director/co-writer Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, even though it's the lesser movie and the tears it earns aren't always honest ones. Yet despite the manipulation and rather simplistic writing and little in the way of directorial innovation, George's film stands as a moving, important work. How could it be otherwise? Set in the spring of 1994, when the Hutus began their systematic massacre of the Tutsis, the film concerns the decent, orderly hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), who managed to save the lives of more than a thousand Rwandans by sheltering them in his four-star hotel; Hotel Rwanda details how, through ingenuity, courage, and quite a bit of good luck, Rusesabagina became a national hero. For viewers whose media-influenced memories of the genocide are spotty or nonexistent, the film might seem revelatory. I wish that the dialogue weren't so intentionally expository, and that George had pulled the reins on the melodrama a tad (his continual use of suffering children to underline the threat, while heartbreaking, is employed too often), but there are images of true power - George stages his scenes of impending violence with fervor and style - and the film is propelled by a magnificent performance by Don Cheadle, giving what is, by far, his strongest screen work to date. When the seemingly unflappable Rusesabagina attempts to put on a necktie, only to collapse into sobs, you can feel the entire audience praying for him to regain control; Cheadle commands an almost astonishing amount of viewer empathy here, and he's nearly matched by Sophie Okonedo, incredibly touching as Paul's wife, Titania. Hotel Rwanda was, by its very intent, inevitably going to come across as well-meaning; that it comes off as so much more is truly inspirational. Grab your Kleenex and go.
IN GOOD COMPANY
Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, and several others give performances of such relaxed honesty in Paul Weitz's In Good Company that audiences can be forgiven for thinking the movie is more than a standard sitcom in celluloid drag. But, really, isn't this all just too cute for comfort? Faced with mid-career downsizing and a new baby on the way, sports-mag ad man Quaid becomes second-in-command to Grace's nervous whippersnapper, who - wouldn't ya know it? - falls for Quaid's funky, collegiate daughter. And thanks to the contributions of the cast, even those of us with a low threshold for this sort of thing can have a reasonably pleasant time. Quaid and the terrific Marg Helgenberger create a refreshingly sweet and sunny pair of longtime marrieds; Johansson, with her natural ebullience, adds to her repertoire of throaty ideals of romantic perfection; and pros like David Paymer, Clark Gregg, and Philip Baker Hall pull off their stereotypes admirably. Best of all is Topher Grace, who, despite being the most traditionally sit-commy of the cast - he delivers his punchlines with TV-honed finesse - gives his role enough shading to suggest an actual human being. Among the Oscar hopefuls and crude holiday smashes such as Meet the Fockers, In Good Company has established itself as a nice-sized hit, and despite the formulaic nature of the movie, it's hard to begrudge its popular appeal; with an ensemble this winning, two hours at the cineplex passes by harmlessly, and oftentimes, even enjoyably.