Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 23, 2014)
Sometimes I really believe that there is such a thing as a “make good” Oscar. This theory postulates that sometimes an award recipient gets a prize as a concession to a prior work that failed to take home the gold. For instance, Renee Zellweger’s Oscar for her cartoony performance in Cold Mountain may have been a concession that she really deserved recognition for her superior turn in Chicago.
Perhaps this is why 2004’s Million Dollar Baby won the Best Picture Oscar over a list of stronger contenders. Clint Eastwood directed it, and he also made 2003’s Mystic River, the flick many thought should have beaten The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for Best Picture. Ironically, King itself was seen as a “make good” Oscar since many interpreted its prize as an attempt to reward the entire trilogy but not the specific film itself.
Whatever the case may be, I remain convinced that Baby was an undeserving Best Picture winner. The film introduces us to Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), the owner of a grimy old gym where he trains boxers. Elderly former fighter Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris (Morgan Freeman) acts as caretaker for the joint as well. Frankie manages up-and-comer “Big Willie” (Mike Colter), a solid boxer who gets an offer for a title bout. However, the cautious Frankie turns down this opportunity because he thinks Willie still needs two or three more tune-up fights before he’s ready.
Frankie’s promised Willie the same thing for quite a while, however, which makes the boxer think his shot will never come – at least not as long as he stays with Frankie. Because of that, Willie eventually leaves Frankie in the lurch to take on a manager who gets him a big fight.
In the meantime, we see activities back at the gym. In addition to Scrap, its denizens include a scrawny mentally challenged boxer wannabe named “Danger” Barch (Jay Baruchel). He fantasizes about prize fights with Tommy Hearns even though that pugilist hasn’t been champion in years. Scrap takes care of Danger and humors him, but the boy’s presence in the gym irritates some of the regulars, especially mean-spirited and arrogant Shawrelle Berry (Anthony Mackie).
Into this world steps rising fighter Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). She got into the boxing game late in life – at 31, she’s almost over the hill – but she shows promise and wants Frankie to train her. He refuses to work with her, though his attitude doesn’t dissuade her and she continues to work out at the gym. Won over by her persistence, Scrap lends her a hand when he can.
Eventually Maggie’s persistence wins out and Frankie agrees to train her. He maintains a desire to keep his distance, though, as he promises to teach her the ropes and send her on her way to someone else. Along the way, the pair grow closer, and this relationship becomes the main focus along with Maggie’s increasing success as a fighter.
When I saw Baby theatrically, I left the screening irritated. The film garnered reams of effusive praise that I didn’t think it merited. Simple and heavy-handed, the movie left me cold.
However, I realized that I went into the flick with certain expectations. Sometimes I get a better perspective when I watch a movie a second time and I can then better see its charms.
Too bad that didn’t happen with Baby. On second viewing, I thought it seemed just as flawed as the first time through it. While not without its positives, the movie demonstrates way too many significant problems to be so highly regarded.
Note that this area of the discussion may present some spoilers, so if you want to avoid those, skip ahead to the technical ratings!
My biggest concerns stem from the superficial qualities of most characters. Only Frankie comes across as an actual full-blooded human being. He displays real subtlety and depth, primarily via his haunted past. We know he did something major to hurt and alienate his daughter, and clearly this continues to affect him. It also seems to have made him excessively cautious, as though he avoids entanglements so he doesn’t hurt or get hurt again. The film occasionally telegraphs Frankie’s issues, but it leaves enough to the imagination to make him a three-dimensional personality.
Unfortunately, the other main characters don’t get the same consideration. For instance, Maggie displays two moods. Usually she’s golly-gee-whiz chipper and determined. Occasionally she reflects her own hurt, primarily due to the pain inflicted on her by her uncaring family. Maggie loved her dead dad, but her mom and siblings have done nothing but cause her heartache.
Oh, the Fitzgerald family - what a cartoony conglomeration they make! Trailer trash so nasty they’d look more at home in a John Waters movie, I get the feeling Eastwood gave the actors one piece of direction: “Think Jerry Springer!” These rednecks would look right at home on tabloid TV but they seem badly out of place in the real world Baby purports to portray.
But back to Maggie. Swank took home an Oscar for her role, and that just stuns me. Granted, the actress does her best to develop Maggie into a real personality, but she can’t overcome the shackles placed on her by the one-dimensional writing. Maggie’s a determined hick with little personality beyond that.
Similar constraints make Scrap a weak character. I love Morgan Freeman and I’m happy he finally took home an Oscar, but why couldn’t it have been for a good role like the one he played in Seven? Frankly, Scrap exists as a plot device. He brings together Maggie and Frankie, and he also acts as the latter’s conscience. Scrap is little more than Jiminy Cricket come to life, and that just isn’t much of a character.
The rest of the world comes chock full of even less defined roles. In addition to the idiotic Fitzgerald clan, we get Danger, who essentially is the Chicken Hawk from Looney Tunes. Danger’s even more of a plot device than Scrap, as he exists solely so Scrap gets an audience-pleasing moment when he clocks Shawrelle.
Then there’s Billie “The Blue Bear”. I’ve not seen a boxer so overtly villainous since Drago from Rocky IV! She displays no more humanity than that Soviet robot and her path is laid out even more obviously. With all her dirty tricks, does it surprise anyone when she seriously injures Maggie?
Which leads to the movie’s other major flaw: all its plot gaps, telegraphed concepts and leaps in logic. Billie gets away with an awful lot during her bout, and then we’re supposed to believe she wins anyway! Thousands of witnesses see her violate the rules, but apparently this fight occurs in pro wrestling world where combatants get away with everything as long as the ref doesn’t observe it.
Maggie’s fate comes as absolutely no surprise either. Much has been made about the film’s controversial ending, but we could see it coming from a mile away when Maggie talks about how her daddy had to put down an old dog. We get it: when she can’t live up to her peak anymore, she wants to die. Go ahead and kill her already to make this nonsense end.
I could go on about the inconsistencies and idiocies, but I’ll stop there before I work myself into a lather. One can argue that I’m a hypocrite because I’ll accept stupidity and much bigger flaws in a movie like Independence Day but then I pick on something like Baby. The difference comes from how high each flick sets the bar. ID4 is nothing more than a moronic popcorn flick, but Baby aspires to be something more. Too bad it falls far short of those goals.
Though not without some charms – primarily the warm interaction between Eastwood and Freeman - I thought Baby was too much like a damned TV movie. It had too many obvious plot points spelled out too far in advance and too clumsily. The film presents exceedingly little depth or nuance as it bashes us over the head with its themes. This doesn’t make for a satisfying movie.