Monday, April 18, 2011

Picking a Fight with "The Fighter"

I've found the hardest reviews to write are the ones where you have nothing particularly good or bad to say about a film. This was the case with Ben Affleck's "The Town," and it's in the same with David O'Russell's similarly Boston-based boxing film, "The Fighter." While I like many of the actors who appear, I didn't find the the characters particularly compelling. David O'Russell partially uses a pseudo-documentary format, and does fine job of recreating boxing matches and bringing a certain degree of realism to the film, but otherwise I really don't see what all the fuss is about.

"The Fighter" follows "Irish" Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg), starting at a low point in his boxing career. He has plenty of potential, but suffers from the inattention of his mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and brother Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), who act as his manager and trainer respectively. Alice's mismanagement puts him in fights he's ill-suited to win. Dicky, a crack addict and former boxer best known for once knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard, is distracted by his habit and his participation in an HBO documentary. Mickey's personal relationships don't fare much better. He struggles to stay in his young daughter's life, despite the hostile attitude of her mother. Alice is preferential to Dicky, and both are very good at out-talking Mickey when he tries to bring up any concerns, backed up by a passel of Mickey and Dicky's foul-mouthed sisters. However, things start to turn around when Mickey begins a relationship with Charlene (Amy Adams), a feisty bartender. He also finds new success in the ring with the help of his father George (Jack McGee) and a new trainer, Sal (Frank Renzulli). Mickey has concerns about abandoning Dicky and Alice, but reconciliation seems impossible as the two sides of the family only come together to clash in spectacular fashion.

As you may have gathered, while "The Fighter" is billed as a sports film, it's largely a domestic drama. Mickey's contentious relationships with the various members of his family are far more exciting than any of the matches he fights. The boxing aspects of the film follows the conventional sports movie formula to the letter, with the setbacks and big wins in all the usual places. The personal conflicts going on, however, aren't as predictable. If "The Fighter" strives for anything, it's authenticity. And it's to O'Russell's credit that he brings just as much care and attention to detail when portraying Mickey's messy home life as he does to the training and fight scenes. The characters scream and yell profanities at each other, there's no trace of Hollywood sugarcoating, and as it's been widely reported, several of the actors, including those who play Mickey and Dicky's vociferous sisters, are non-professionals who were chosen for their hard-knock looks and genuine Bostonian accents.

But what does all this authenticity add up to? While I can appreciate the efforts to be true to life, that doesn't mean it makes the story any more interesting to watch. As someone who isn't a boxing fan, I found that not enough attention was focused on Mickey's boxing career to really set up the stakes for the audience. Though I could more or less follow what was going on, I still don't understand why Mickey Ward is worth following, and I found the context for the big fight at the end of the film severely lacking. I've had similar problems in the past with films like "The Damned United" and "Invictus," where the filmmakers assume a certain level of sports knowledge from the viewer that I just didn't have. And looking at the drama going on behind the scenes, the constant bickering was grating and difficult to sit through, especially whenever the female characters got confrontational. Just because the real life characters might get into catfights doesn't mean that we necessarily need to see them up close and personal. The subtler relationship bits were fine, but had a tendency to be overpowered by the big personalities until the last act.

The performances could have made up for some of these problems, but unfortunately this is another area where I found some significant weaknesses. Melissa Leo and Christian Bale brought home Oscar statuettes for playing Alice and Dicky, and they're both very good. Their performances are loud and flashy, but taken on their own, they're sound. Amy Adams as Charlene was a nice break from her usual good-girl roles, giving her a chance to play someone harder and more aggressive. However, I could never get away from the fact that I was watching Amy Adams rather than her character, and it didn't help that she was stuck with some of the worst lines in the film. Similarly, Mark Wahlberg is well cast as Mickey Ward, but though he sells those fight scenes, he isn't doing much heavy lifting in the acting department. He plays essentially the same tough-guy character that he always plays, though at his most sympathetic.

I have no special beef against "The Fighter," but I didn't particularly enjoy it. It's well made with plenty of style, but the substance is a little lacking. Some of the supporting performances were exemplary, but others only so-so. In the end, I felt exactly the same going into the film about Mickey Ward and his family as I did coming out if it, which is totally ambivalent. I don't think that reflects too well on the film.

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