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.


Unknown said...

For someone like Russell, who I think is smart and talented, I wish I would like more than one of his movies. But I think this film shows one of his major problems as a director. He pushes his actors into broad caricatures that make them exhausting after a few scenes. Luckily, "Three Kings" had three lead actors who were restrained to balance the broader supporting performances.

Like you, I felt Leo and Bale went over the top. I thought Adams balanced her performance on the precipice of caricature but didn't go over. I had no problems with Wahlberg (he was the quietest, which was a relief compared to the others), but he seems to stare in confusion at the other actors Performing with a capital "P" as if he had got different acting notes from the director everyone else received.

Plus, the script was seemingly written not understanding the concept of subtext, as every character announces their feelings at any given moment. How many shouting fights can one movie contain? And when the movie tries for profundity, it comes up with scenes such as Bale giving his crackhead friends a cake.

Sheila O'Malley said...

I definitely liked the movie more than you did, but I think your point about the title is VERY well taken and would do much to point the film in the right contextual direction. Because for me it wasn't about one brother or the other - it was that whole damn family, and the girlfriend. It's ALL of their story.

And seeing the real Dicky in that clip in the end shows that Bale was pretty spot on in his imitation, and even, in some cases, might have downplayed that guy's manic energy.

Those sisters were terrifying. The way they all just sat around with their spritzed bangs. I know those girls.

Normally, I dislike girlfriend "sub-plots", especially when they feel like they're a bone thrown to the female audience - but this particular sub-plot was my favorite part of the movie, and I thought Adams found just the right touch of being a little bit lost, and yet finding her strength (if she ever lost it) - and choosing her man. Making him choose her over her family. Those scenes were really well done, I thought.

I agree that Micky was a bit of a cipher. For me, it was really about the GROUP. Which is why yes, The Fighters would have been a much better title.

Jason Bellamy said...

Steven: The first (and only time) I saw Three Kings, upon its release, I liked portions of it but wondered what all the fuss was about. But I need to revisit that one. As it is, I still don't have a terrific grasp of Russell's skill or tendencies or weaknesses (other than his notorious behavior on the set).

Your note about the film's subtext, or lack thereof, is right on. Same goes for its attempts at profundity. True. As for Wahlberg ...

Sheila: It's no doubt accurate to call Micky a cipher, but I think the film could have made him a cipher with character. That's what I was missing.

After writing my review, I thought more about boxing movies and Wahlberg's career, and I came up with two strange comparisons: On the Waterfront and Boogie Nights. It's unfair to compare anyone to Brando, but in On the Waterfront we feel the way Terry is lost in the shadows ... he's quiet, overlooked, a nothing, but even when he's not speaking we can tell that he's thinking and feeling, even if we're not sure what he's thinking and feeling. In contrast, Micky seems to just stand there, except in the scenes in which he articulates his emotions. As for Boogie Nights, I thought of the characters played by William H. Macy and Don Cheadle, who in addition to being comically awkward, both have moments where you can feel their suppression, their feeling of being overlooked. A lot of that is acting, but most of that is directing. When Leo and Bale are playing to the back row and beyond, the director can stand back. But Russell needed to do something in order for Micky's silence to be expressive.

As for Dicky: I think Bale's performance is fine in and of itself. I just hate the way the film uses him: the dumpster scene, the cake scene, etc. The Dicky we see ringside at the end really has nothing whatsoever in common with the Dicky we've seen to that point (stoned or sober), he's just the Dicky that the movie needs at that moment, playing the loving brother and trainer. Stuff like that irked me.

But I'm with you on Adams: she made chicken soup out of what usually is a chicken-shit throw-in role.

Speaking of Adams: Am I the only one who thought that the love scene was one of the most unintentionally awkward love scenes in recent memory? It was as if Russell's direction was: "OK, you really want each other, but not enough to actually go after one another, so just pose as you go to the bed, as if you're in an underwear commercial ..."

Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - Ugh, yes, that was the only off-note - her climbing on the bed in the black underwear, and Wahlberg kind of tentatively kissing her and touching her - It just read totally false to me. Not like two people getting naked for the first time, but two awkward actors trying to deal with an uncomfortable filming situation. Wonder what the story is behind the filming of THAT scene - Wahlberg and Adams are both totally capable of being realistic and believable in sex/love situations - but that was just awkward. Should have been cut.

For me, the best "love" moment shown in their relationship was when she showed him her high jump in the front yard, and he congratulated her, looking at her like, "You are the coolest person I've ever met!!!" He is PSYCHED at his great good fortune, and there she is standing there in gym shorts and a T shirt. THAT felt real to me.

Jason Bellamy said...

For me, the best "love" moment shown in their relationship was when she showed him her high jump in the front yard, and he congratulated her, looking at her like, "You are the coolest person I've ever met!!!" He is PSYCHED at his great good fortune, and there she is standing there in gym shorts and a T shirt. THAT felt real to me.

I sooooo want to agree with you. But that whole scene felt like shorthand for "And then they fell in love and became a supportive, mature, stable couple." I admit I kind of liked the scene anyway, but I was uncomfortable with its intent.

I think my favorite moment between the two of them, cliche though it is, is the scene in which Dicky's HBO documentary airs and she shows up at Micky's apartment. I was thinking of that scene when I wrote that Charlene's commitment to Micky almost made me believe he has a soul. Adams looks into Wahlberg's eyes as if to say, "You must be in excruciating pain..." putting aside her own feelings. That's a terrific little moment.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ha! I felt like that WAS the moment they became a stable grown-up couple. The scene to me felt like the important step in between "I pick you up at a bar where you're working" and "you now travel with me to my boxing matches and watch me spar and put an ice pack on my head". I felt like the sex scene was obligatory and revealed ZERO about who they were as a couple (it made me feel ikky, frankly - they both seemed so awkward, and not in a good "This is the first time we're having sex" way, but in a "our director is making us do this, and we both feel kind of weird about it" way). The front lawn scene was when I thought: "Oh, I get it. He thinks this girl's a keeper."

And I had forgotten about her showing up at the door of the apartment. Yes, very good and key moment. That's the moment she throws her hat into the ring with this man. She's "in".

Sheila O'Malley said...

It's also another example of why your idea for pluralizing the title is an excellent one.

Sam Juliano said...

They overplayed the "white trash" aspect of these characters, and though Leo was accomplished I was almost ready to make some comparisons here with PRECIOUS in the sense that the point was TOO vivid. Wahlberg was uninspired and the entire picture was a dictionary definoition of formula. I concur with you right from the beginning with your lead-in to this superlative piece when you take issue with the film's title, and later it's ill-advised segue into slapstick.

jake said...

I just found your site and am glad I did. I whole-heartedly agree with the vast majority of what you've written, here, and am a little confused as to why so many of my peers think this movie is so brilliant. I thought it was kind of humdrum and predictable, despite flashes of brilliance.

There is one point I disagree with you on, and that is the realism inside the ring. Even though I'm just a novice at boxing (I've been training hard at a boxing gym for less than half a year), it doesn't take much exposure to the sport at all (seriously, a couple weeks will do the trick) to realize how insanely difficult it is.

The fighting in the film is 'movie boxing,' where two fighters stand toe to toe and simply wail on one another more times than is humanly possible to absorb, until one of them finally falls. In reality, you'd have to dance around for 10 rounds before landing ONE of those kinds of punches. Not a day goes by at our boxing gym where somebody isn't doing a comical impersonation of the ridiculous boxing in The Fighter. Frankly, Whalberg doesn't really look like he knows what he's doing, he just looks like he's in really really good shape.

Yet it's probably best that this is the case; one in a thousand viewers know or care what boxing's actually like - lots of dancing around and defense, not many DRAMATIC punches ever being landed. If it makes the movie more exciting, it's probably best to keep it unrealistic.

Anyhow, thanks so much for your site. I've bookmarked it and have been reading past posts and look forward to future ones.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jake: Thanks for the thoughtful comment (and the compliments)! Glad to be bookmarked. You've caught me during a two-month period when posting will be at its least frequent (day job conflicts), but I'll try to make it worth your while in the coming year.

On the realism of the fighting ...

Well, I see what you mean, but for the most part I thought the editing suggested that they were cutting out all the dancing around and simply showing the bursts of violence. (Whereas in the Rocky movies they really do suggest that it's nothing but dramatic punches from the opening to the closing bell.)

And whereas boxing movies are almost always going to go for big drama -- which means big punches -- I thought there was quite a bit that just showed guys thumping away without landing any major wallops. And, most significant, when they did throw a punch -- larger or small -- it looked like it landed, which not all boxing movies can claim.

Still, of course, it is just acting, so it doesn't perfectly replicate the real thing. You're right there.

John said...

Wow, it's sooooo refreshing to see some of the things I feel about this movie, said by other people. I thought that Leo's performance was pure cartoon character. I loved the neo-realist feel to the fight scenes, but everything else was really mediocre to me.

The performances of the sisters and the mother were all Dick Dastardly impersonations and it pretty much murdered an otherwise solid film for me. Basically: Pro- Bale's performance, Wahlberg's performance, Adams' performance, the fight scenes. Con- EVERYTHING else.

So the buzz about it winning awards and being the best boxing movie ever and all of that has me completely vexed.

Jason Bellamy said...

John: Sorry not to reply to your comment. You've come across my blog at its quietest time. Stick with me. It'll get better in a few weeks.