MILLION DOLLAR BABY
It is a heroic act of efiance to a youth-obsessed culture that Clint Eastwood continues to star in and direct movies, let alone that he often does both with such artistic economy and so little sweat. At 74, he has fashioned one of his richest and sneakiest fables: a boxing tale that screenwriter Paul Haggis based on the stories of F.X. Toole, a former ringside "cut man." That was the trade of Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), who with his pal Eddie (Morgan Freeman) now runs a gym for boxing hopefuls, most without a hope. The longest shot is Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank). She hasn't a prayer, or a clue, but she's determined to be the champ and ... can you guess what happens?
Maybe not. The story has a sucker punch, which reveals both the importance of family and the ways loyalty can trump official morality. Like Frankie, the film is a tough creature with a heart. Like Eastwood, it's a relic that dazzles you with its footwork, daring and class. --By Richard Corliss
James L. Brooks loves to manufacture a genial head butting between nice people--well-mannered folks whose ethics are too rigorous not to point out the flaws of those they love. He pulled it off in Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets and, in fact, his one film flop, I'll Do Anything. This time he crams a Malibu house with anguished sweeties: superchef John (Adam Sandler); John's two good, frazzled kids; his mother-in-law (Cloris Leachman); and two newcomers, gorgeous Mexican housekeeper Flor (Paz Vega) and her perfect daughter Cristina (Shelbie Bruce).
A traditional movie would have these princesses of the Third World teach the rich Anglos lessons in humanity as John and Flor join hearts across the border. Oh, that happens here, with dollops of the rueful, self-aware wit that is Brooks' unique gift; nobody else writes jokes with such acute ethical shading. But there's a tarantula on the angel-food cake: John's manic wife Deb (Téa Leoni). Deb is Brooks' first real villain, a character everyone in the film can reject. Leoni, investing an awful energy in her role, puts the pang in Spanglish and throws it out of whack.
That may be a cue to the viewer that this is not a romantic triangle but a story of the complex love between parents and their kids. Deb could be the dread force of nature that helps unite the other people in the pained, needy, nearly always forgiving world of Jim Brooks. --R.C.
THE SEA INSIDE
An aging quadriplegic named Ramón Sampedro wishes to end his life. The state insists that he must live on. And as Ramón pursues his dream of a dignified death, we, of course, begin to think that a man so witty, intelligent and soulful may be wrong--that however grievous his afflictions, he ought to spare himself. Spirits as fine as his are not to be lightly wasted.