Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Oscars: A Follow-Up - Part 2 (The Fighter)

The Fighter (A-)

Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride:  Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams)
Tied the Knot!  Oscar and Melissa Leo (Best Supporting Actress), Oscar and Christian Bale (Best Supporting Actor)

One of the best films of the year and an important film since Amy Adams sheds her cute girl image faster than Rajon Rondo sheds defenders.  After being the sweet, uninteresting wallpaper in films like Leap Year, Sunshine Cleaning, and Julie and Julia, Adams is provided the opportunity in The Fighter to throw down, verbally and physically, and she does so with much sneaky aplomb.  She plays Charlene, the girlfriend/confidante of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a working-class boxer from blue collar Lowell, MA living in the shadow of his half-brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale).  Adams nails the simple complexity of a woman who finds her shadow in Mickey.  She recognizes she needs to not only help Mickey conquer his demons (his family, first and foremost), but her own: the inability to act on the persistent failure that's smothered the dormant potential residing within soul.  For her and for Mickey, their symbiotic relationship allows for each to bring out the most authentic version of each other, but not without severe struggle, which is made emotionally resonant via the boxing metaphor.  Watching Adams in this film provides a sigh of relief for the actress herself because she sheds the baggage of unfulfilled potential she's been carrying since her exquisite turn in Junebug.  

The Fighter plays out in predictable fashion, but that doesn’t make the characters predictable or their predicaments any less gripping.  If anything, the film grounds Ward’s journey in a verisimilitude that provides the audience the ability to identify with his heroic everyman archetype.   We want Ward to succeed because we want the same kind of success.  You know the kind – the kind that rewards hard work, gritty determination, perseverance, and the often brutal pain (physical/emotional/social/economical/spiritual/you name it) people suffer through in order to achieve that success.  Early in the film, Ward loses a fight he never should have taken part in; later, he takes Charlene out of Lowell for their first date to see the French film Belle de Jour.  He falls as asleep during the movie.  Why? she asks.  Why did you drive me 30 minutes out of town to see a film you couldn't care less about much less pronounce?  He finally admits shame, wounded pride, the simple fact he's lost face in the eyes of his daughter (from a previous relationship) and the people who know him around Lowell.  This scene tenderly captures the real and perceived tendencies people have to judge others and judge oneself.  Whether founded or unfounded, Ward's admission of his pain and embarrassment to Charlene feels like it's tethered to a universal weight people carry around when trying to measure up to expectations, both other people's, but also their own.  

Sometimes, this verisimilitude might veer towards the garish: Ward’s family appears straight out of some stereotypically twisted white-trash, urban hillbilly The Hills Have Eyes freak fest.  Besides ex-professional boxer turned crack addict Dicky (Bale plays him as a garish ball of energy as if his body is plugged into some off-screen electrical outlet that’s constantly shocking his system until he’s all spastic limbs, head bobs, bugged-out eyes), there's Micky’s seven hideous sisters and one mama bear, played by Melissa Leo.  Both Leo and Bale give mannered performances that provide the film a hefty dose of entertainment bravura (especially Bale's), but neither should have won the Oscar for supporting actress and actor (Adams should have won for supporting actress and John Hawkes for supporting actor).  Thankfully, director David O.Russell balances the more histrionic performances with subdued, but effective turns by not only Adams, but star Wahlberg  1.  This guy got no recognition during the awards season; instead, critics fawned over Bale and Leo.  But his performance provides the ballast for the other performances.  Wahlberg gives Ward a reticence and integrity that allows for the viewer to understand the difficulty he faces when dealing with his family and struggling to move on to another plateau in his life.

Best picture of the year?  No.  One of the top ten?  Absolutely.  Even those who don't love the sport of boxing should discover that boxing is just the architecture The Fighter uses to construct an engrossing, well-told tale.

1 - I do hope David O. Russell goes back to writing original material after The Fighter.  He's an inventive, exiting storyteller, and I'd like to hear more of his voice.  Three Kings is still one of my all-time favorite films; an astoundingly amazing blend of tremendous visuals, deft satire, wicked action, and intelligent geopolitical polemic.  If you have not watched it, shame on you!  It never feels dated, and only feels more relevant today. Frankly, that movie is ripe for a sequel right now what with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Check out this great trailer:  Three Kings