Thursday, January 6, 2011
Neutral Corner: The Fighter
Several times while watching David O. Russell’s boxing movie stumble around in cinematic Palookaville, landing a few blows here and there but failing to become a legitimate contenda, I wondered if the film’s biggest downfall might be its name. The Fighter, as a title, is crisp and narrowly focused – evocative of one man locked in a battle all his own. On the other hand, The Fighter, as a film, is loose and widely focused – about a man who is trying to rebuild his boxing career, and about another man, the boxer’s brother, who is under the fist of a crack addiction, and about a woman, the boxer’s mother, who is clawing for control of both of her sons, and about another woman, the boxer’s girlfriend, who is determined to see her man succeed, and about a half dozen other women, the boxer’s sisters, who are hell-bent on eliminating the girlfriend from the family portrait, by force if necessary. The Fighter? That doesn’t represent this film. The Fighters? Plural? That’s more like it.
Oh, what a difference a single letter might have made – less in terms of setting audience expectations than in terms of enabling Russell and the film’s screenwriters to follow their instincts in the first place. As The Figher unfolds it’s impossible to ignore the film’s half-hearted interest in its supposed primary subject. Mark Wahlberg plays the titular pugilist, Micky Ward, whose Rocky-esque rise from mediocrity has all the goods of a dependable – if too familiar – sports movie, but screenwriters Eric Johnson, Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy seem to profile Micky reluctantly, to the point that I wonder if they’re interested in him at all. Over and over again, The Fighter moves away from the taciturn Micky to bask in the absurdity of his family – his scowling sisters, his melodramatic mother and his crack-smoking brother. It’s not hard to see why. The foul-mouthed sisters are as terrifying as anything Ree Dolly faces in her Grimm journey in Winter’s Bone. The mother, Melissa Leo’s Alice, is all hair and attitude – an accent off from Goodfellas. And the brother? Well, given his hyperactive tongue and thirst for attention, Dicky Eklund was set up to be a scene-stealer even before Christian Bale went all-in with his honey-baked performance. All together, Micky’s family could draw attention away from Sarah Palin at a Tea Party rally, so it’s no wonder Micky is overpowered. He’s fighting above his class.
A welterweight in the ring, Micky is a flyweight on the screen. The trouble with Micky isn’t that he’s quiet. It isn’t even that he’s boring. The problem is that he’s entirely without character (small “c,” to be clear). By default we observe that Micky struggles to get a word in edgewise, that he’s passive and that he’s a pushover. But it’s one thing to show a character who gets overshadowed by his older brother’s antics and status as a local legend (Dicky was a boxer, too), and it’s another thing to leave a main character undeveloped. The Fighter does the latter. True to Screenwriting 101, there are scenes in which Micky Stands Up For Himself, and scenes in which Micky Tells Us What He Wants, but there are no scenes in which Micky genuinely feels – or at least none in which his feelings are at the forefront. Dirk Diggler excluded, Wahlberg tends to do better with subdued emotions than with oversized ones, so in a sense he’s a good fit for Micky. But because Wahlberg lacks the inherent magnetism of a George Clooney (see: The American), he needed a director who could evoke Micky’s state of mind even when Micky wasn’t intent on sharing it. Instead, Micky hangs around in most scenes like a heavy bag at the gym – impossible to miss but easy to ignore.
Where Micky does have a presence is in the ring. No surprise there. As you’ve probably read by now, Wahlberg spent years in intense training to ensure that boxing aficionados couldn’t criticize his execution of the “sweet science” like dancers have criticized Natalie Portman’s ballet in Black Swan. And to that end he succeeded: I can think of no more realistic depiction of boxing on the big screen (perhaps because in many instances I’m not sure there’s much depicting going on). But to what end? Sports Illustrated suggested that The Fighter “just may be the best boxing film ever,” but of course it would: Russell’s fight scenes look like genuine sport, right down to the retro TV graphics. But film fans haven’t raved about Raging Bull for 30 years because it recreates the feeling of watching boxing on TV. Raging Bull has fans because it creates the feeling of being Jake LaMotta. In terms of in-ring realism, Russell’s film overtakes Raging Bull, Rocky, Cinderella Man and probably any other boxing movie you can come up with, but it trails almost all of them in terms of in-gloves subjectivity. In making this observation I don’t mean to imply that one approach is inherently superior to the other. Rather, I mean to demonstrate how consistently The Fighter prevents us from tapping into the emotions of its protagonist.
It’s as if The Fighter was once meant to be Micky’s story until its creators realized that boxing underdogs are a dime a dozen whereas crack addicts who once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard are hard to come by. And that brings us back to Bale, whose Dicky is all ticks, outbursts and jagged limbs (Bale lost some 30 pounds for the role). There’s validity in Dicky’s absurd design, to be sure, but the film doesn’t take the character seriously, using him for slapstick comic relief more often than for harrowing tragedy (Dicky jumps out of a second-story window into a garbage bin not once but twice). Much of the same could be said for Leo’s Alice, who is a fun character to observe the first three times she plays the “We’re family” card, only to grow tedious over the second half of the film. The bright spot then is Amy Adams as Micky’s girlfriend, Charlene, who throws fewer punches than Dicky and Alice but lands them more often. Through her commitment to Micky, it’s almost enough to believe he has a soul. But not quite. Dicky, Alice, Charlene, Micky's sisters, Micky’s father (Jack McGee’s George), heck, even Micky’s trainer (Mickey O’Keefe, as himself), those folks are characters (and then some). Micky is just a fighter. Maybe the title is fine after all.