March 29, 2005

G.K. Chesterton once noted that "children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy." Youth is idealistic, while many of us, more advanced in years, have become jaded -- trying to find our way through a fallen world, praying we are not judged too harshly. These disparate attitudes create very different stories -- for children, fairy tales; for adults, sometimes desperate dramas. Children's stories are fantasies, we tell ourselves, while the uglier stories of our adulthood are "realistic." The existence of this dualistic view of the world is the only way I can explain the simultaneous success of two films currently sharing space at the cineplex: Robots and Million Dollar Baby.

Million Dollar Baby is the recipient of multiple Academy Awards. Robots may be nominated next year, but for technical categories, not for story. Million Dollar Baby is a "serious" film -- which is code for dark, edgy, and divisive, while Robots has been deplored by some critics as simplistic and fluffy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

While Million Dollar Baby confronts Western culture with a story designed to stir controversy about euthanasia, it stacks the deck so firmly in favor of its predetermined situational ethic that the result is not so much artistic persuasion but coercion. Robots has an agenda as well -- but it is either so skillfully woven that none of the critics I read noticed it, or the adult eyes that viewed the film for professional purposes were already too pessimistic to see.

Euthanasia as Necessary Tragedy

The Hostile Family

Maggie Fitzgerald, the protagonist of Million Dollar Baby, is self-proclaimed "trailer trash." Her family is poor -- yet greedy, petty, stupid, mean and ungrateful. The more Maggie tries to better her family's lot in life, the more they complain. Maggie's mother is so jealous of her success that she tries to lure Maggie back under her influence by saying that all of her friends and relations are "laughing" at her professional boxing success. When Maggie later is paralyzed, her family comes to visit her in the hospital -- but only after having a spin at the local theme parks. Their only concern is to get their hands on Maggie's money. There is not a single scrap of humanity in these characters -- they are not people, but devices. They represent "the life not worth living" from which Maggie has escaped through boxing -- and now that boxing is over, there looms the prospect that she may be fated to return -- a life worse than death.

The Raw Deal

After training with Frankie Dunn, a man who becomes her surrogate father, Maggie gains fame through boxing, and some degree of fortune. In an instant all of it is destroyed by a sucker punch (one of many missed by a referee who looks away so often he must have been trained by the WWF). The blow comes from an immoral boxer not worthy to unlace Maggie's boxing gloves. Maggie is the winsome heroine KO'd by a twist of fate right out of Greek tragedy. She has been dealt such a raw hand that audience members don't feel that they have the right to deny her anything she asks -- including help to end her life.

The Lack of Credible Opposition

Only one character in the film represents the transcendent authority to say no to Maggie's desire to be killed: Frankie Dunn's priest, Father Horvak. Frankie is supposed to represent the Catholic rank and file -- he is not a "Christmas Catholic," but a man who religiously attends Mass and appears eager to ask his priest questions. Horvak is a burnout. He uses profanity against his parishioner, falsely accuses him of lying, tries to persuade him not to come to Mass, and when the time comes that Frankie really needs advice, Horvak parrots the church's position on euthanasia, but relays no sense of compassion, common struggle, or the kind of friendship that would have guided Frankie to a better decision. Horvak, having squandered his moral authority, is impotent and irrelevant. This parishioner is on his own.

Euthanasia as the Only Option