The white trash of Lowell ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The white trash of Lowell

The Fighter
My rating:

I have just recently discovered something about my tastes in movies (which is something to discover, since most people only know what they like or dislike without knowing why): I like stories about good people. Intelligent people, talented people, noble and selfless people, capable people who nonetheless go up against overwhelming odds that challenge all their wits and skills and principles. They may be flawed people, and they may pay a price for their flaws, but they are still worthy of respect and admiration - which is what makes them worthy of me watching them for 2 hours. This is probably why I liked Fair Game so much.

And this is probably also why I don't see what's so great about The Fighter.

Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is the half-brother of Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), a former boxer whose claim to fame is knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard once years ago. But now Dicky is a washed-up crack addict living off his former glory - and Micky has his own struggling boxing career, incompetently managed by his mother Alice (Melissa Leo) and ineffectually trained by his brother. When he is defeated in a bad match-up with a much heavier fighter, he finds comfort in a romance with a fiery bartendress named Charlene (Amy Adams) - and when Dicky is arrested for a hare-brained money-making scam, Micky begins to realize that his loyalty to his dysfunctional family is tying him down. He finds a new trainer and manager, and although Dicky and Alice regard it as a betrayal, he starts winning fights and grows more successful. But still he yearns to reconcile his family, his girlfriend, and his career.

I believe director David O. Russell owes an apology to the real-life Alice Ward and her seven daughters, sisters of Micky and Dicky. Because oh em gee, the film portrays them as horrible people. Alice is nails-on-chalkboard annoying, and the sisters are played by the most unattractive actresses you'll see in any movie this year. And Dicky is obviously a self-deluded loser, but what makes it even harder to watch is how much his family and the entire town of Lowell, Massachusetts enables him in his delusion. There's a subplot of an HBO documentary crew filming him, and he thinks they're making a film about his comeback to boxing - when they're actually making a cautionary doco about the horrors of drug addiction. This is not presented as a big shocking reveal; the film crew director says, "I told you before" when he tells the family what their film is about.

So the level to which these people refuse to see the obvious comes across as contrived and on-the-nose. How could Dicky actually be surprised when he finally sees the documentary? How could anyone tolerate Dicky's blowhard self-aggrandizing, when they know he spends all day at the local crackhouse? Why is it that Micky only now thinks of breaking away from his family, when we're told they've been (mis)managing him for the past 10 years? It all feels like these are movie characters that only just popped into existence, instead of real people with real histories. And there's an inexplicable bit in which Dicky attempts to soothe his mother, who has "discovered" his drug habit, by serenading her with "I Started a Joke". This scene should have explored the relationship between the two, in which Alice is confronted with how much and how long she's been making excuses for Dicky. I thought it was a cop-out.

Even the good people in this story weren't easy to get behind. Micky is weak and gutless; when he fires his mother and brother, he barely has the balls to speak for himself, letting Charlene do most of the talking. And Charlene, the one person closest to him who truly has his best interests at heart, again seems more like a screenwriter's creation than a real person. They fall for each other after only one date; she leaves him because she can't stand his family, then comes back at just the most opportune moment when he needs a shoulder to cry on (and also to further the plot). I did start to like the movie more when these characters finally started pulling together, when the better angels of their natures came to fore for Micky's sake. But it was a hard slog to get there.

So yes, I totally failed to see why this movie is being hailed as among the best of the year. I can give props to Christian Bale and Melissa Leo; Bale's flamboyant and scenery-chewing performance is a testament to his commitment, and Leo likewise so thoroughly inhabits her character that you simply cannot imagine her as anyone else. Amy Adams is also fun to watch, especially when she stands up to Micky's family with all her foul-mouthed fire-spitting fury. The acting is uniformly excellent - with the exception of Mark Wahlberg, whom I still think is the dullest leading man in Hollywood. I've never thought him good in anything besides The Departed, and I think he's only suited for character roles rather than leads. And he hasn't a whit of chemistry with Adams. (Frankly, Wahlberg couldn't generate chemistry with a flint and tinder.)

In many ways, The Fighter is a formulaic underdog sports movie, and it works well enough as that; the boxing scenes are pretty effective. And I appreciate that it aims to stretch out of the formula by focusing on the protagonist's family dynamics, and the unique local colour of its setting. It's just that I found it a largely unpleasant watch, and isn't well-written enough to justify spending time with so many ugly, ugly characters. I almost want to apologize for giving such a low rating to such a highly-acclaimed film (although honestly, I'm mainly giving it 3 stars because I cannot in good conscience give it the same rating I gave I Am Number Four) - but screw it, a critic's gotta stand by his opinions. I'll concede that my issues with it are largely personal, so hey, go watch it if you wanna see what all the fuss is about. Just be ready to take a shower afterwards.

Expectations: does not look good


k0k s3n w4i said...

are you sure that the sisters aren't as frightful as they were depicted?

when bale accepted his oscar, he gave a shoutout to dicky who was in the audience - and dicky seemed to be very happy for bale. and i saw a video interview of dicky which also showed that he thought the fighter is a good movie and didn't seem to have any complaints about factual inaccuracies.

i can see why mcgarmott and you are unimpressed with this film (which i now consider my fave of 2010)... but i guess the brothers' relationship struck a very deep chord with me. i can only describe it as "something that reminds me why i love movies." i was surprised when dave chen from the /filmcast picked it as his fave film of the year. i was even more surprised when i found myself agreeing with him.

McGarmott said...

In one of the interviews with David O. Russell, he mentioned, "The mom and the sisters? Well, we met them and, oh yeah, they really were like that. We're not joking." (Paraphrased.) He also mentioned that once he was talking to the real Charlene and when some of Dicky's sisters walked into the room, Charlene ended the conversation and walked out.

What makes the venture a bit more perplexing is how Christian Bale keeps praising the real Dicky Eklund at all his acceptance speeches.

Anyway, one thing I'll say is that as a film critic, I think you should stick to your guns and be truthful about your feelings about movies you saw, even if they go against the majority. I've been telling people for years that I couldn't care less about LOTR ('Whaaaaat!?') or Star Wars ('Huh, seeeeriously?'), and I've also named The Last Holiday as one of the top 20 films from the last decade ('Are you fucking mad?!'). Then there's also the time last year when I thought that Despicable Me was better than Toy Story 3. (Bet that raised s3n w4i's eyebrow.)

McGarmott said...

Btw s3n w4i, you should check out this Russian movie called The Return (Возвращение).

k0k s3n w4i said...

technically, i'm with the majority of film reviewers - both professional and amateur - in thinking that the fighter is an excellent piece of cinema :P anyhow, i don't consider myself a critic. i prefer to "discuss" films i watch; that's why i frequently go into spoilers. it's more rewarding for me that way.

i'm not a big fan of star wars either (and i'm not just talking about the prequels). but i think LotR is pretty much what epic filmmaking is all about.