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Cinema Sunday (12/19/10) December 19, 2010

Posted by monty in movies.
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Director David O. Russell presents me with an apparently insoluble contradiction.  On the one hand, he’s directed two movies in the last fifteen years that I consider to be the very best of their genre.  Flirting With Disaster is a comedy both broad and subtle, based in finely-sketched characters as well as in the conventions of traditional farce.  This story of a man attempting to reconnect with his biological parents has one of the richest and deepest comedic casts of any movie I can think of: Ben Stiller (easily his best work), Tea Leoni, Josh Brolin, and Richard Jenkins are remarkably funny; Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal are reliably great as Stiller’s adoptive parents; and Russell made a savvy move in casting Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda against type as a pair of ex-hippie LSD-manufacturers.  It’s easily one of my all-time favorite comedies.

Similarly, Three Kings is one of the best recent war movies, and was the best movie about the Gulf War (albeit the first Gulf War) until The Hurt Locker came along.  It’s a sly little movie about a group of opportunists (George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze) who attempt to get rich at the end of the war and end up as unexpected humanitarians.  In its discomfiting mix of humor, violence, and sentiment, it’s too clever and complicated to be pigeonholed as “just” an anti-war film, and what we’re left with is a keenly-observed film about human nature under duress.

So, yeah, Russell is an immensely-talented director.  But he’s also, by many accounts, a massive douchebag.  His conflicts with Clooney on the set of Three Kings are well-documented (Clooney, apparently as nice a guy as Hollywood has ever seen, charged Russell with, among other things, being in over his head, physically abusing an extra, verbally abusing everyone else, and generally being an asshole) and Clooney has vowed never to work with him again.  And then, of course, there’s his legendary freakout on the set of I Heart Huckabees.  To wit (and skip to 1:07 for the good stuff):

It’s difficult for me to completely admire the work of a guy who’s apparently sort of a dingus in the filmmaking process.  It’s not nearly the same thing as reconciling the brilliance of Roman Polanski’s movies with his other career as, you know, a child rapist, but I’d much rather the people whose work I like be kind, gracious human beings instead of immature, tempter-tantrum-throwing bullies.

So it was these reservations that I brought to The Fighter, along with the fact that I hadn’t been a huge fan of Huckabees, which seemed to me to be a movie too overly pleased with its own cleverness.  But I’d heard great things about Christian Bale’s performance, and if Wahlberg was willing to re-up with Russell after Three Kings and Huckabees, maybe he deserved another chance from me, too.  Oh, and Amy Adams.  That’s reason enough, right there.

So, first off, The Fighter is a sports movie only in the sense that Three Kings is a war movie. Simply put, it’s got other things on its mind.  Wahlberg plays Mickey Ward, a hen-pecked boxer who’s never really amounted to much. He’s managed by his overbearing mother Alice (played by a terrific Melissa Leo) and trained by his half-brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale, more on which later), a former fighter and present-day crackhead who constantly relives his glory days when he supposedly knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in the ring.  It’s clear from the start that Mickey has the potential for greatness, but he’s hamstrung at every turn by his mother’s poor management.  Not helping matters is the constant drama that results from Dicky’s unreliability (as well as their unresolved sibling rivalry), which is a distraction when Mickey should have the focus of a laser.  It’s only when Dicky is arrested and Mickey falls in love with Amy Adams’ rough-edged barmaid Charlene that he’s able to extricate himself from his family and begin to train in earnest.

The Fighter is a curious movie because, as I said above, it’s not really a boxing movie.  It’s a movie about family, and how sometimes the people we love are the worst things for us.  With that as its thesis, it’s crucial that Mickey be a compelling character whom we want to see transcend the struggles that threaten to hold him down.  As played by Wahlberg, however, Mickey is hardly there.  He’s understated, indecisive, passive, constantly overshadowed by Alice, Dicky, and Charlene, who are all stronger characters than he is.  As The Fighter is based on a true story, it’s possible that this is how Mickey really is (an assumption strengthened by a clip of the two real-life brothers that runs with the end credits), but it doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling film.  This isn’t necessarily Wahlberg’s fault, who does serviceable work with an underwritten character.  I think my brother actually hit the nail on the head when he asked me, “Does Wahlberg play a character dumb enough for him to be good?”  That seems to be an accurate summation of Wahlberg’s talent as an actor: he’s great, as long as he’s not required to stretch.  And, as I said, he does decent work here as a simple guy torn between allegiances.  But if the movie had to live or die with his performance, it would be on life support.

No, the movie’s success (and it was successful, in that it was an interesting story and I was never bored) comes down to Leo, Adams, and Bale, who all give top-flight performances.  Adams’ is the least demanding of the bunch, as an unapologetic college dropout who’s perfectly happy with the life she’s living.  Leo just barely dodges caricature to find real depth as Alice, a deeply flawed (and deeply unpleasant) woman who can’t seem to reconcile her love for her sons with her overwhelming desire to take the credit for all their success and none of their failure.  And then there’s Bale.  He’s not quite as gaunt here as he was in The Machinist, but he’s lost enough weight that his face is all bony angles and bulging eyes, and he plays Dicky as a motor-mouth huckster who can sell anyone anything – and that extends to the illusions he has of himself.  An HBO film crew follows him around; Dicky seems to sincerely believe it’s about his inevitable comeback, when it’s actually a documentary about the ravages of crack cocaine.  The moment when he realizes the truth – of the documentary and of his life – is heartbreaking.

There’s enough other good stuff to admire in The Fighter to make it work (Jack McGee’s performance as Mickey and Dicky’s father; the well-shot boxing sequences), but it’s a movie battling schizophrenia.  On the one hand, Mickey’s pencil sketch of a character dukes it out in a conventional sports movie, while on the other hand, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and Christian Bale seem to be transmitting their performances from another, better movie, where much more is at stake.  Given my own indecision about Russell’s work (and working style), it seems somehow fitting that a similar tension would be present in The Fighter.  It’s an entertaining movie that should be so much better, directed by a guy whose work I enjoy even though I wish I didn’t.

*****

Current listening:

Violens – Amoral (2010)

Current reading:

George R.R. Martin – A Feast for Crows (2005)

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