MILLION DOLLAR BABY….Shakespeare’s Sister reminds me to comment about this year’s crop of Academy Award? nominees for Best Picture. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen them all, but the topic at hand is Million Dollar Baby (“thoroughly wonderful”) and I have seen that one. Spoilers follow below the fold.

Is there a phrase that’s the opposite of “grows on you”? Whatever it is, that’s my reaction to MDB. It was OK in the theater (though I wasn’t blown away), but the more I thought about it the less I liked it.

It’s a boxing flick and the basic story is simple: scrappy unknown from the mean streets gets a shot at the big time and becomes America’s hero ? and she’s a girl! In other words, Rocky VI except slightly less credible. (Although if Benjamin Wallace-Wells is right about the appallingly poor quality of female boxing in his more-interesting-than-the-movie essay about female boxing in the current issue of the Monthly, maybe Maggie Fitzgerald’s astonishing ability to crush the competition with only a few months of training is more credible than I think.)

In any case, as we all know it turns out that MDB isn’t just Rocky in drag. And that’s the problem. It’s bad enough that the first half of the movie is formulaic sports movie stuff, but the unexpected injury that ends Maggie’s career, far from rescuing the story, felt to me like a dramatic fraud. Instead of being a well-acted but routine sports flick, we’re now suddenly supposed to accept it as a deep and moving story about the quality of life and the meaning of family.

But I didn’t buy it. The plot devices are too far removed from ordinary experience to be meaningful and the emotional manipulation is done with a sledgehammer. (I can’t have been the only one to wonder what Dickens horror story Maggie’s family came from, can I?) But the worst part was the faux religious crisis of conscience suffered by Eastwood’s character. This was done why? To demonstrate that helping Maggie die was a really, really hard thing to do? No kidding. Hell, the whole subject was treated better two decades ago in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, and I don’t even like Richard Dreyfuss.

In the end, I just didn’t believe. Maggie’s meteoric rise was a cliche and her family was a cartoon. Morgan Freeman has played the same character about four or five times now. And assisted suicide isn’t really the groundbreaking subject the movie makes it out to be. In the end, the profundity was forced and the emotional manipulation was done with all the grace of a piledriver.

But other than that I liked it fine.

Of the other nominees, I’ve only seen Sideways and The Aviator. Sideways was OK, but I don’t quite get the cult that’s grown up around it. As for The Aviator, it may be a standard Hollywood big budget biopic, but it was a pretty good Hollywood big budget biopic, a three-hour movie that played like a two-hour movie. (As opposed to the far more common two-hour movie that drags on like a three-hour movie.)

Of the three, then, my vote goes to Martin Scorsese and The Aviator. It’s probably not the best movie of the year, but then again, it’s better than The Gladiator. That’s something.

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