Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Fighter: The Ties That Bind

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Though I mostly rested this weekend to recover from the nasty cold that hit me last week, I did end up seeing one film in a movie theater this weekend.

I finally got around to seeing David O. Russell's Oscar-nominated drama The Fighter over the weekend. First things first: Reports of a Melissa Leo scenery-chewing massacre have been greatly exaggerated. Seriously, folks? That's it??? Honestly, nothing she does as Alice Ward, the imposing matriarch of the troubled Ward clan, seemed to jump out at me as particularly excessive or mannered; in fact, I had no trouble responding to her as the misguided if well-intentioned mother she was, rather than as the egotistical Melissa Leo showcase I kept being warned about from friends. People, I've seen far worse in the hamminess department. Has anyone actually seen Jon Voight and/or Eric Roberts in Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train (1985) recently, as I have? Now, there's a couple of distractingly mannered lead performances that threaten to get in the way of the film's cumulative effect; Leo is a miracle of nuance and subtlety compared to those two.

But enough about Leo, who looks to be on her way to an Oscar anyway. The movie surrounding her, Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg and Amy Adams, believe it or not, does have some thematic and emotional interest beyond the particulars of its standard sports-movie plot—enough, at least, that I actually found myself genuinely involved in the film rather than merely counting down to its inevitable final triumph.

The Fighter, it turns out, is not so much a "boxing drama" as it is a family drama. But while the Ward clan is dysfunctional for sure, the film's focus isn't just on the dysfunction, but on Micky Ward's (Wahlberg) complicated attempts to try to break free from his familial roots and assert his own independence. That's not easy for him to do, even with the help of his assertive but caring girlfriend Charlene (Adams); his family has provided so much for him up to the point the film's story begins that he still feels a sense of loyalty to the clan even when, in the back of his mind, he knows that they're steering him wrong more than they're steering him right. Even when Micky does take his tentative first steps at establishing a presence outside of the family—training with someone other than his older brother Dicky (Bale), for instance—he still finds himself relying on strategies taught by his increasingly crack-addled brother to help him in certain tough spots. Surely, Micky desperately wonders, there is a happy medium possible between pleasing his family and being his own man; The Fighter is as much about his attempts at finding that balance as it is about, say, Dicky trying to overcome his drug problems.

In that sense, Russell's film is about something everyone surely has to go through in becoming a full-fledged adult: negotiating that smooth transition from relying on your family for support to becoming self-reliant. And I have to admit, I found myself relating to this angle of the film quite strongly—me being someone who, just a few months ago, was casting off the shackles of living at home with my parents and trying to figure out how to live on my own in New York. I know what it feels like to have such a strong sense of loyalty to your family—to my mother, especially, in my case—that it sometimes feels constricting: as if, if you don't have their approval or their support, you can't go on. (This, remember, is why I agonized as much as I did about changing my major from accounting, my mother's preference, to journalism, my own.) These ties that bind, sometimes to the point of irrationality, are something Russell and Wahlberg seem to understand deeply, and it's that depth of feeling that animates The Fighter past its sports-movie clichés and turns it into something genuinely suspenseful and even affecting.


andrew schenker said...

Nice post, Kenji,

I think my problem with the Melissa Leo performance is not that it's a case of scenery-chewing or that it's too over the top, but that it's a rather disturbing example of lower-middle-class grotesque. (Disturbing in what it reveals about the filmmakers' attitudes toward a certain group of people.) Still, Russell allows Leo's character's motivations and fears enough play to justify the characterization, at least to a degree. The same cannot be said for her many daughters, little more than a gallery of hateful class-contemptuous caricatures.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Yeah, I can't really argue with your distate with the depiction of those daughters, who are practically made up to look grotesque. In some ways, The Fighter isn't too different from other previous poison-pen letters to Boston (Mystic River, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, The Town). I guess in this case, it bothered me but not to an overwhelming degree.

Ryan McNeil said...

I like that you bring up how it's not really a "boxing movie" as I believe that has drawn some unfair comparisons.

I heard one podcaster say that this wasn't even as good as CINDERELLA MAN or ALI...but as you detail in this post, it isn't really trying to be. the story is more fascinated with the circles Micky hasd to run outside of the ring than it is with the punches he has to throw inside.

Great post on a surprisingly good film!

Kenji Fujishima said...

Thanks, Mad Hatter!