16 December 2010

The Fighter

**** (4 stars)

Following up his successful collaboration with Mark Wahlberg in "Three Kings" and the critic's favorite "I Heart Huckabees", director David O. Russell is back with "The Fighter". The true story of a down on his luck boxer and his even further down the rabbit hole brother, it has already garnered critical acclaim and several high profile nominations (Golden Globe, SAG).

Mark Wahlberg is Mickey, a welterweight "stepping stone" who gets beat up more than he actually boxes. In his corner is his brother Dickey (sublime Christian Bale) who used to be a notable fighter in his day before succumbing to drugs, and his mother (Melissa Leo) who's also his manager. When Mickey meets Charlene (Amy Adams), he gains the confidence to step out on his own and look out for himself first with family obligations second. Soon he finds he has a shot at the title, but is it worth anything without his brother?

The city of Lowell, Massachusetts plays as much a character in the film as any of the actor's. It's is the picture by which we all imagine the Boston suburbs to be- hard, down on their luck Irish with drinking problems and anger issues. Instead, this film portrays it's residents as equal parts "trash" and hero. They take pride in the few things they've got and don't let anyone mess with them.

Wahlberg delivers much as you would expect him to. He's the perfect toughie with the heart of a lamb. The scenes of him boxing (shot in cinema vérité style by Hoyte Van Hoytema, "Let the Right One In") are brilliant; more in the style of "Raging Bull" than "Rocky", and certainly pay homage to the great boxing films that came before. When we first meet our heros, they are being interviewed by HBO for what they are told is a documentary chronicling Dickey's return to boxing. Each scene shifts from the standard 35 mm format to digital which recreates the televised fights and interviews.

I was surprised by how much this was really Dickey's story and Bale the powerful center of the film. It's his scenes you most look forward to. What is he going to ruin now? How will he regain Mickey's trust? Who is he going to hurt next? Bale famously dropped weight for this movie but it isn't in your face as it was in "The Machinist". Instead, his frail yet powerful body are a map to his triumphs and struggles. It amazes me the amount of stress he puts it through, yet it never fails him. The guy really needs a few films where he can just enjoy a normal weight as I'm sure the frequent fluctuations are not good for his long term health. Dickey can't seem to catch a break, so he lives through his brother. He pushes him and molds him to be what he never was instead of allow him to be his own person. It is an amazing story of brotherhood more so than it is a tale of boxing.

Melissa Leo is genius as their mother. Overprotecting and oblivious to what's going on around her and how she is manipulating her sons. She deserves all the nominations she can get and is my front runner to win the Golden Globe. On the reverse, Mickey's dad (Jack McGee, "Rescue Me", "NYPD Blue") is the caring father, the true Irish standard. He only has eyes for his son and won't let anyone, not even his wife, run him down. Adams looks haggard, which I suppose is on purpose, but I just kept thinking, "She's not going to age well". That really has nothing to do with her performance except it was a bit distracting. She surprised me actually. I think of her as the "cute girl", the chick from "Enchanted" and "Julie & Julia". Even in "Doubt" when she was able to attack a more serious role, she always looked dow-eyed  and sweet. She gets to be dirty here and it's as if for the first time she believes what she is doing and who she is portraying. I can only applaud Russell for his excellent direction as she gives a performance I'm not sure she could have with anyone else.
[side note: I now believe Adams could be Janis Joplin. Well, maybe believe is a bit strong, but I'm certainly less opposed.]

I really liked this movie. Maybe part of it had to do with seeing it in a packed theatre with an audience that applauded during the fights. It is always a better viewing experience when the audience gets wrapped up in the film, when they laugh, cry, cheer. Somehow I always enjoy myself more than if I were at home with a bottle of wine by myself. I recommend "The Fighter". It is not what you think it is. It's about family, and struggles, and triumphs. Oh, and it's also a little about boxing.

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