Hey, it’s Mutual Oscarbation, our awards season feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies Academy members are dodging punches. This week they get in the ring and spah with David O. Russell’s The Fighter.
Henry, before we get down to brass tacks and knock the stuffing out of The Fighter, a prestige-gritty boxing biopic, I’d like to point out that in the often surprisingly funny film’s second scene, as Dicky (Christian Bale) realizes he’s late to a training session with his younger brother Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) and stumbles from the crack house where he’s wasted away his life, money and career, he and his addict friends re-enact the titular scene from Dude Where’s My Car. “Oh, fahk, where did you pahk the cah?!” “I dunno, you pahkd the cah!” “Ah, shit, I’ll just run it, I need the radwak anywah.” And off he goes. But do we really need to go down this road again, Henry? Is there more to the boxing movie than we thought?
Well, no, not exactly, but this “based on true events” underdog story from Huckabees hearter David O. Russell is very aware of its many precedents, and acknowledges them rather cleverly, I thought. The Fighter is book-ended by documentary projects, with HBO camera crews filming Dicky (who’s a dick), Mickey (who’s a softy) and their dysfunctional Rustbelt Massachusetts white trash clan. One camera crew is there voyeuristically exploiting family disaster if not actively facilitating Dicky’s downward spiral, while another shows up to shoot the redemptive rise of his less self-destructive younger brother. It’s like Rocky for Irish-Americans combined with Symbiopsychotaxiplasm for sports movies. Adding to the self-aware layers of mediation there’s the telling fact that all the fight scenes are filmed, for extra realism, not in tight, crisp close-up with POV punches and disorienting tumbles to the floor, but at a broadcast-appropriate distance with not-so-great TV cameras. Late-90s graphics and captions, and commentary from excitable sportscasters accompany these scenes’ slightly garish blurred images, positioning us as televisual spectators to a true story that was in fact experienced largely through television. And it works: by presenting Mickey’s many feats in the ring through the format in which we typically encounter boxing matches, Russell adds to the force of his subject’s exploits.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here, Henry, because as with any boxing movie that’s also after Oscars, The Fighter goes easy on the fight scenes, focusing instead on hard-hitting character development and knocking out countless well-inhabited signifiers of socio-economic standing (The Fighter: This year’s Blind Side poverty porny sports movie?). Unlike the later Rockys, all this textured, method acted and regionally accented family conflict can’t be squeezed into training montages and ring-side disputes (though there are plenty of those too). In fact, at one point someone likens Mickey’s strategy to a game of chess, and I think that’s a pretty effective way of thinking about this film. The entire true story, translated to the screen by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington, positions the various pieces of the large Lowell, Massachusetts, ensemble for the final fight’s converging moves. Everyone in the family and town comes with their own deep-seated if not necessarily all that complex relationship to Dicky, Mickey, and Mother (Melissa Leo). All that comes to a head, and then dissolves so nicely into the simplicity of the ring. It’s one of the great pleasures of boxing movies: how all that shading, contradiction and uncertainty boils down to a series of blows exchanged between two dudes in a big bright square. Of course it’s not all that tidy, right Henry?
Yeah, tidy in a really belabored sort of way. This movie’s as hooked on clichés as Bale’s character is on crack, and yet a lot of it—at least half of it—kind of works, thanks to Russell’s direction. You can see some meta-parallels that might have attracted him to the project: like Bale’s character, he showed some promise as a kid, but now seems past his prime. (I actually like, if not love, Huckabees, but I don’t think I’m in the majority there.) Like Wahlberg’s, he’s been counted-out by copious haters, but this movie marks his revalidation, his relegitimizing, his comeback. (Curiously, this movie is Wahlberg’s pet project, but he took the flattest character of the lot—the dramatic catalyst.)
Bale has his own striking parallel to his character: did you see Terminator: Salvation, man? That performance was pathetic—pure, but unintentional, self-parody, worse than the Batmans. But this movie offers him some kind of redemption. Sure, it’s an Oscar-crazy, bug-eyed, scenery chewing kind of performance. But it’s solid and, best of all, fits in neatly with the performances around it.
Russell’s greatest coup, here, is to create a thrilling, multilayered version of Lowell, Mass. and its trash: the sweaty, dirty-faced men, and the skanky women who serve as their accessories. It’s a smoky, working class portrait of an alcoholic culture’s grotesques—women who suck down Budweisers all afternoon, and whose un-kept-up big-hair suggests they just sucked off the electrical socket. The costumes are perfect—how about that midriff-exposing tube top Amy Adams sports in her introductory scene? (Later, couldn’t you tell she’d be the one for Wahlberg after she changed his bandages?) I saw Melissa Leo’s name in the opening credits, but it wasn’t til the closing ones that I realized that manipulating matriarch (a la Animal Kingdom), done-up like Tammy Faye, was she. But it’s not just superficial mastery: she was so good at fleshing out her odious character that I spent most of the last act on the edge of my seat, waiting for someone to smack her in the face, giving me the vicarious satisfaction. It’s the actors’ pitch-perfect embodiment of their types, the rapid-fire banter, the nailed accents, and the textured habitat in which they interact that gives The Fighter a stunning authenticity, making the previously leading Massachusetts auteur Ben Affleck look like a tourist. (Russell enhances it with his shaky close-ups that, documentary-style, often cling to one character even in moments of dialogue; though, that he sticks to this aesthetic even in private scenes of romantic courtship seems silly.)
So it’s disappointing that all Russell ultimately has to work with are the kinds of clichés that cut a shit-for-brains trailer. You know, the TV spot in which Wahlberg rejects his no-good bruddah, reconciles wit everybuddy following uh real tragedy, and den wins duh championship. I was happy that Russell set the training montage for Wahlberg’s comeback to a mellow rock song, but there’s no excusing using “Back in the Saddle Again” for the montage of knockouts that signifies Wahlberg is, indeed, making a comeback. Oh, unless you’re shamelessly fishing for Oscars. Then, adopting shit for brains is, unfortunately, a no-brainer.
Categories baited: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Christian Bale), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Amy Adams, Melissa Leo), Best Costume Design (Mark Bridges), Best Make-Up (a lot of bruised, cut and poor people).