Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)

In modern American drama, "ensemble" has come to mean any film featuring a large-ish cast. But true ensemble work is tougher to come by. It's not simply a matter of one main character who interacts with a lot of well-written characters played by famous people (Shutter Island is a good example of this). An ensemble will be given opportunity to interact amongst each other, and we as an audience will have the opportunity to show how these relationships intersect and ripple out to affect all of the others.

If for that, and nothing else, The Fighter is a remarkable film. The trouble comes with how they must have arrived at this method. The film tells the based-on-a-true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer from the working-class neighborhood of Lowell, MA (is there any other kind of neighborhood in cinematic Boston?) who struggles between the demands of his family and what's best for his career. The film benefits tremendously from giving just as much screen time to Micky's brother Dicky (Christian Bale), mom Alice (Melissa Leo), and girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), with plenty of support from other key players. One of the reasons cinephiles and old people tend to say "they don't make 'em like they used to" is that it used to be quite common to have a fully-formed supporting cast stocked with great actors delivering solid work in very small parts. Now, too often, those parts are shrugged off by everyone involved, but not here.

Much has been written, and a few awards already given out, to praise Bale's performance, which is more than earned. After making his name with a sort of eccentric intensity in films like American Psycho, The Machinist, Harsh Times, and The Prestige, Bale has been floundering in the wake of his star-making role in Batman Begins, delivering surprisingly bland performances in The Dark Knight, 3:10 to Yuma, and Public Enemies. Many of us wondered if Bale, like Johnny Depp, had simply abandoned all pretense and started acting simply to work. His performance here doesn't just suggest otherwise - it demands it, and is among his finest.

The rest of the cast follows Bale's lead far more than Wahlberg's, and is better for it. Everyone is a little heightened here (Melissa Leo is especially having the scenery for lunch), sometimes to the point of all-out comedy, and one of Russell's greatest strengths as a director lies in this. Whereas comedy in most dramas often comes off as insincere attempts at levity, Russell has shown a clear understanding of how the two interact in our daily lives. And he doesn't do it (merely) through clever one-liners and insults, but rather through reveling in the occasional absurdity of existence, which never undercuts the dramatic impact but in some ways heightens it.

Wahlberg, unfortunately, fares worst of all, and in most films in the underdog sports story, this would sink the film. If not for Russell and company's decision to turn this into an ensemble piece, it absolutely would have. He's always been an uneven actor, much better in supporting roles than leading ones (Boogie Nights aside), but has typically benefitted when working with great directors. And Russell is one of the guys who really tapped into his potential in the past, with Three Kings and I Heart Huckabess, but neither of them could make it work here. Micky's role in the story is largely a passive one. He's the boxer in question, so you can't really write him out, but he's not a terribly active participant in his own life. There's nothing wrong with a passive protagonist, but you need an actor capable of subtlety, and Wahlberg just doesn't have that in him. His Micky is very one-note; mopey without plumbing depression or stagnation. He's not actively bad - the film never gives him the chance to be - but he's simply not present.

But again, this would only sink a lesser film, and it's a fairly stunning achievement when you can make a film this great without a good lead performance. Russell's direction is as exciting as ever, and his opening credit sequence that introduces us to the main players and their Lowell setting is one of the best of the year. It cannot be overstated how exceptional the cast is. Melissa Leo and Amy Adams are playing completely outside of what we've come to expect from them, and when that's done this well, it makes for an exciting watch. Everyone else is completely in tune to the rhythm of each scene, the way each moment has to resonate, and their character's place in this world. Russell plays these people like instruments in a way few directors really can.

It's also genuinely exciting, "inspirational," one might say. Wahlberg said that they tried to go the extra mile in making the boxing realistic, and I don't know much about that, but you can feel those punches from the cheap seats. If Wahlberg doesn't sell Micky's victory in the streets, he completely sells it in the ring. My girlfriend, who saw it the day after I did, confirmed that I wasn't the only one who wanted to literally burst into applause at the end.

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