Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review of The Fighter

I don't think David O. Russell knows how to direct movies about real people. I would recommend his next effort be based on the writings of David Hume or Andrea Dworkin essays or a really wordy instruction manual for a Blu Ray player.

This review previously appeared in the January issue of ICON, and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Director David O. Russell, as you may remember, has never met a genre he didn't want to shatter, whether it was a war movie (Three Kings) or odes to family life featuring incest (Spanking the Monkey) or armpit foreplay (Flirting with Disaster). With 2004's indecipherable I Heart Huckabees, he made an existential detective story, whatever the hell that is.

But Russell's newest film, The Fighter, is easy to read, which makes for an uncomfortable experience. It covers boxer "Irish" Micky Ward's real-life quest for professional legitimacy amidst personal chaos. His older brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), was a promising boxer before becoming a crack addict and neighborhood embarrassment. Their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), is a tough-talking dame who bullies anyone in her way—except for her beloved Dicky. Mother and brother are Micky's manager and trainer, respectively, which guarantees that Micky (Mark Wahlberg) will spend his remaining useful years as a sacrificial lamb for a paltry purse. But it's family. What can you do?

If you're Micky, you suffer in silence and watch your prime evaporate. By 1993, he's pushing 30 and irrelevancy when he meets Charlene (Amy Adams), a sexy, tart-tongued bartender who convinces Micky to see things differently, namely that his family resembles King Lear by way of Lowell, MA. When Micky gets a chance to train professionally and possibly get a title shot, he knows he must cut ties. Alice and Dicky feel betrayed and Micky has to decide if his championship quest can include his destructive but loving family.

That's a conflict ripe with dramatic possibilities. And Russell does get some memorable scenes from it: Alice and Dicky (who is in jail) endure Micky's fight over the phone; Charlene's first meeting with Alice is a tense confrontation between two strong-willed woman who want what's best for the man they love. But Russell has nothing but contempt for these people. In his attempt to capture a slice of working-class Massachusetts misery, Russell presents a burlesque. Nearly every scene in The Fighter has the feeling of second-hand news, or worse, stereotypes hijacked from a Saturday Night Live skit. Charlene has a tramp stamp. Micky's sisters all have hair inspired by Paramus Park's food court circa 1989. The accents are as thick as pancake batter. The soundtrack features songs from Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin. It's rock loved by palookas who punch timecards and foul-mouthed girls who drink beer from the bottle. By trying so hard to profile these people, Russell lampoons them. Repeatedly.

The desperate showiness, the misguided attempts at authenticity, seep into everything. Leo earned—and I do mean earned—an Oscar nomination playing a no-collar single mom in 2008's indie darling Frozen River. Here, her performance is forced and broad, like she's doing some kind of white-trash song-and-dance routine. Adams, who plays na├»ve nice girls better than anyone, is astoundingly miscast as a tough cookie. (Note: Both women would have benefited from watching Amy Ryan's magnificent, natural work as a morally indifferent Boston single mom in Gone Baby Gone). Bale and Wahlberg give the same performances they always do—full-blown intensity (complete with gaunt frame, rotting teeth, and a bald spot) for the former; eager-to-please, wide-eyed wonderment for the latter. In doing so, the actors confirm that we're watching a cookie-cutter, sweat-stained tearjerker. Besides, hasn't Wahlberg been down this road before with the football drama Invincible, right down to the same big-hearted fellas from the neighborhood, impossible odds, and cute barroom muse? And wasn't that movie much, much better?

Unlike Invincible, none of the performances—or anything else—in The Fighter possesses a soul. It turns out that for all of his cleverness and verve, Russell doesn't work well with emotions. The director has spent nearly 20 years striving to be an artist. It's quite possible he may have forgotten how to be a human being. [R]

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