Monday, December 06, 2010

My Favorite Thing About "The Fighter" Is...

I saw The Fighter last week and didn't even deliver a "this is all the time I have" 7 word review. I have more than 7 words on this one though what follows is not a traditional review. The first thing I tweeted was...

It still applies. Yep, Christian Bale is doing his best work ever in the co-lead role of Dicky Eklund (Let's call it The Fighters) or at least his best since American Psycho (2000). Barring Geoffrey Rush's mutant power (awards magnetism) the "supporting" Oscar is most definitely Bale's to lose. And this is an important distinction: It'd be his to lose even without his baity penchant for putting his health at risk to dwindle down to anorexic nothingness for a role. This is his third time doing so. We hope it's the last.

A Tale of Two (Half) Brothers

But what's my favorite thing about The Fighters other than him?

I guess it'd be the way Melissa Leo (playing the mother to both fighters) and Christian Bale are always believably in sync as mother/son. They're practically twins with their darting hollow eyes, perpetually nervous body language and emotionally vampiric yet super vibrant energy. Would that more actors would co-author such compelling familial bonds while playing at "family". What's more, Bale and Leo have mastered the weird arms-length charisma of charming people who are simultaneously completely off-putting. Alice Ward and Dicky Eklund are the type of people you can't help but want to hang out with... but from a very safe distance, with plentiful escape routes.

Melissa Leo's on fire.
No, no. it's not that. That sympatico style is great but it's not my favorite thing about the movie.

Also worth loving is the everyman mundanity of Amy Adams and Mark Wahlberg, a somewhat perverse use of their combined star power. (Though they both have it, they're more recognizably "human" and thus smaller than giant film stars, here and elsewhere). Charlene (and Adams who plays her) and Micky (and Wahlberg who plays him) are constantly drowned out by the cacophony of Much Bigger Personalities surrounding them. It's hilarious how often they both just shut right down in the center of a scene with an 'I give up' pout. And they're the "Stars" for lack of a better word!

No, no.

The best element has to be the idiosyncratic humanity that director David O. Russell keeps breathing into the proceedings. By all rights, The Fighter ought to feel far more generic than it does; make no mistake, this is a "true story" inspirational sports biopic. Russell keeps finding ways to vary the tone, play with the moodswings (even perpetually "on" people like Alice & Dicky have quiet days) and have fun with the framing, which generously allows the orbiting cast members to contribute to the movie as well (the standout being Jack McGee as Alice's impressively sturdy husband George). Sports movie fans won't like the film quite as much, one suspects, since the boxing scenes are arguably the most generically executed part.

And then there's the subplot involving the making of the unflattering HBO documentary on Dicky "High on Crack Street" (1995). Dicky willfully deceives himself about it but the doc scenes gives the film tremendous tragicomic boost.

There's also a choice scene in which Micky & Charlene go to the movies and... well, I don't want to spoil it.

David O. Russell loves a rangey ensemble.
 Oh wait, I know.

My favorite thing is the clown car chorus of Dicky & Micky's trashy big haired sisters (John Waters will be green with envy). There are so many of them. They're the most abrasively comic gaggle of sisters since the perpetual assault of Adam Sandler's siblings in Punchdrunk Love.

Or. Well...

The best thing might be the way The Fighters manages to slide so easily into David O. Russell's undervalued filmography even though it's much less original than his other films. When some auteurs make stabs at mainstream genres or popular appeal they lose themselves. Such is not the case here. Russell is still in love with the juggling act of impossibly noisy mixes of disparate acting styles (Flirting With Disaster, I Heart Huckabees), he's still fond of Oedipal undercurrents (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting...), he can still turn a film on a dime from comedy to 'wait, that's not funny' disturbing (Three Kings, Huckabees)  and he's still just about the only director who Mark Wahlberg should ever work with (though, that said, "Micky Ward" has nothing on Wahlberg's Kings or Huckabees performances... the character's too much of a cypher this time.)

But no, it's not that. It's... NO. 

No. No. No. You have to stop somewhere.

Needless to say, The Fighter is incredibly watchable. It's a solid good time at the movies. More importantly, it's a total K.O. for fans of Bale, Leo and O. Russell. A-/B+


adam k. said...

Okay, can we talk about Best Ensemble?

I was just going over the possibilities, and there are actually a LOT of them. I figure these are the top ten possibles:

The King's Speech
The Social Network
The Kids Are All Right
The Fighter
Rabbit Hole
The Town
Winter's Bone
True Grit
Please Give

Roughly in order of likelihood... Now, I'd be surprised if anything other than these 10 (am I forgetting something?) made it, but I would NOT be surprised with almost any combination therein. And this is without Black Swan and 127 Hours to muddy it up any further, since those two are basically one person shows.

I assume TKS and TSN will be there purely on best picture pull, and on the fact that they both have strong ensembles (even though with TKS it's more of just three strong performances, only two of which are actually THAT strong... but regardless, it's an "actor's movie" and will be there).

Beyond that, it's all guesswork. I'd like to think TKAAR will be there since the ensemble's so cohesive, and than The Fighter will earn a spot on merit alone (too many uber-praised performances to miss, I think). And for the last spot, I wanna say Inception, since it seems like such a strong awards-season player and is so clearly an "ensemble" film (though I wouldn't nominate it myself).

But what of The Town? What of Rabbit Hole? Winter's Bone also seems like the kind of movie the actors' branch randomly throws a bone to. But there just aren't enough spots...

SUPER excited about The Fighter, btw. Can't wait to see it next week...

I agree that it's Bale v. Rush. I think Rush should not be discounted since he's such a huge part of such a big film, and many people probably think he's "due" for a second.

Are you planning on considering Bale a lead in your awards?

adam k. said...

I guess Made in Dagenham or Another Year would also be possible... but I don' think they'd place higher than about 8th or 9th in my list above.

Unknown said...

I generally totally agree. Bale's best work since American Psycho and imo the best work I've seen so far this year. I do actually believe that Dickie is something of a supporting role, though. I think the film is focused on Micky's situation and how Dickie creates layers of trouble for him, but still I think everything Dickie does is seen as how it effects Micky.

Leo was fantastic and reminded me so damn much of so many of my aunts and people in the community I know. I grew up in Worcester, MA which is very much like Lowell but bigger and more boring. For my money this film contains the best, most subtle Boston accents I've heard on film, as they are so popular these days. Although I must say I think I even preferred Amy Adams' tough as nails girlfriend. She is what people here would more than likely deem a stand-up woman amongst what we call Mass-trash. (see Blake Lively in The Town)

Interestingly, I have to disagree on the style of the fight scenes. I don't know what your experience watching boxing is, Nathaniel, but the fights were filmed in a way that made them very reminiscent of the actual broadcast style of HBO fights. Especially for the time frame in which they took place.

OtherRobert said...

Christian Bale better than he was in Newsies? I doubt it.

And by I doubt it, I mean I've discovered recently that I actually like boxing movies even though I hate the sport as very few focus solely on the fighting. As such, I can't wait to see this film.


OtherRobert -- he sings in this one, too!

Unknown said...

I guess Leo's in for another Oscar nomination and there were so many people who labeled her "a one nom-wonder" only a couple of months back :) The lady's been working like hell and unlike Dame Mirren all the work will probably pay off.

Can't wait to hear/see those Boston accents!!!

James said...

I really want Adams to get some Oscar love for this film. Mostly so I can close my eyes and pretend she is winning for Junebug.

Lucky said...

You know, I really feel Amy Adams' role here is as Oscary as it gets. Supportive girlfriend in a Best Picture hopeful. Plus she's been nominated before and she's young, white and hot.

Aaron said...

Nathaniel, do you think Amy Adams and Melissa Leo will land Oscar nominations? And do either one of them logistically have a shot at winning?

From your review and others, it seems like Melissa Leo has the more memorable and showy part, but Amy Adams is starting to get the "due" factor (in my opinion). This will be her third nomination, and she's definitely in the age range and at the level of fame where the Academy honors actresses like her. Is she good enough to win?

Volvagia said...

This is the SAG, right? Because The Town, The King's Speech and Inception probably aren't going to be things Nat selects for that. Don't know if Rabbit Hole is either, come to think of it. (If last years noms are anything to go on, Nat requires at least 6 people in the cast, strong work from all involved and regular interplay between cast members. Inception and The King's Speech probably suffer from a dearth of high quality portrayls besides two (maybe three) people. (Leo and Marion (maybe Tom Hardy as well) for Inception, Firth and Rush (maybe HBC as well).)

My Predictions of Nat's Ensemble:

The Kids Are All Right
The Social Network
Please Give
The Fighter
I Am Love (c'mon. That's a gimme for how much Nat's gaspingly in love with the film.)

Also Adam: Who wants flipping Geoffrey Rush to win a Second Oscar? He earned back enough mainstream filmgoers to retroactively semi-deserve his first one (Finding Nemo, Curse of the Black Pearl, Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, Life and Death of Peter Sellers and Munich), but I'd say it at least takes appearances in 5 great pieces of cinema before any critic/critics group tries to push you as a winner. In the eyes of the mainstream filmgoer, Rush probably still has three films to go to fulfill that requirement.

Volvagia said...

And let me guess: He's won your lead trophy, right? That's...Two for Bale at current count.

Lead Actor field right now:


Supporting Actress field right now:

Jacki Weaver
Melissa Leo
Ellen Wong
Rosamund Pike
Dianne Wiest

(I must be screamingly close here, what with paying attention to your articles and the comment crumbs.)

Andrew R. said...

37 exclamation points, eh? Hmmmm...that's a good sign.

Ryan said...

wow... my anticipation for this just went through the roof! And good for Melissa Leo; I can't to see her performance.

also, it sound like Bale with finally get his dues awards wise. Although, Nathaniel, I ask to what degree is Bale a co-lead. Are we talking a toss-up situation or downright Jamie Foxx in "Collateral"?

Becah said...

Best since American Psycho? Best since The Machinist, dontcha mean?

Arkaan said...

Nathaniel, that was one of the strongest things you've ever written. Probably my favourite film review of yours since A History of Violence.

adam k. said...

I dunno, I am breathtakingly in love with I Am Love myself, and I probably wouldn't give it the ensemble nod. The only remotely awardable perf in it is Tilda's. She absolutely deserves an oscar nom, but the whole cast? I dunno. I'd probably opt for something like Winter's Bone or (sight unseen) True Grit, Rabbit Hole or The Town. Or Scott Pilgrim for that matter. That was chock full of fun perfs. Wouldn't be surprised to see that round out Nat's list...

mrripley said...

I loved Marisa berenson in i am love that look she gives the dead guys g/friend just b4 she announces her pregnancy - KILLER!!! SHE DOES HAVE IN TOLD 10 MINS OF SCREEN TIME.

Glenn said...

Amy Adams is, I reckon, going to become one of those actresses who everyone is surprised has notched up 6 nominations yet never won and then, oops, stops getting nominated. Like, does anyone remember she was nominated for Doubt? And it looks as if, even if she's nominated for The Fighter, that Melissa Leo will take the bulk of the love.

Jim Wilson said...

Out of interest Nathaniel, what are some recent movies you've given a flat A to, or an A+?

dinasztie said...

How do you think about the nomination possibilities of Best Supporting Actress? Could both Leo and Adams be nominated? Could they win over Helena Bonham Carter, are they better than her?


CASEY -- i have no expertise on boxing, no. so i could be wrong. but as a very very casual observer (i only see boxing when i'm watching a boxing movie) it seemed very much like most boxing scenes i have ever seen.

but nuances of filming style could have easily escaped me since i don't watch boxing.

GLENN -- it usually stops before six! it seems like people (i'm speaking generally) are always forgetting how few actresses ever get more than 1;) and yet any time someone is a star you go on message boards or what not and people seem to think it will last forever. (I remember talk that Renee Zellweger would get 6 or 7 noms.) It doesn't. usually the oscar love is shortlived. people generally have windows and then it's over. Or they have one window, a long draught and a mini window and then it's over. even if they're still good. :(

this is why i don't think Julianne Moore is ever winning *commence weeping*

RYAN -- no, no. it's not as egregious as Collateral or Jesse James (where the "supporting" actors were actually the #1 lead with the bigger star as a co-lead). It's just a dual lead film. It's the story of a difficult relationship between two brothers more than it is the story of anything else. You spend time alone with both Wahlberg & Bale in their own plotlines/journeys. The narrative thrust is about Wahlberg's rise in boxing... but it's always in association with what is going on with his relationship with his Bale (like Casey said... only in reverse).

My point is if the trainer/junkie was Wahlberg's sister, nobody would think it was a supporting role. :)

but yes, if you have to "rank" the roles it's Wahlberg (lead) Bale (co-lead) and then three big to traditional sized supporting roles in descending order of screentime: Adams, Leo, McGee.

Arkaan said...

Jim Wilson, Nathaniel has given an "A" to the following movies

Rachel Getting Married
Brokeback Mountain
A History of Violence
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Spider-man 2
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Far From Heaven
Moulin Rouge
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Dancer in the Dark

Bill_the_Bear said...

On the question of Best Ensemble, don't forget Animal Kingdom!

Jeff said...

I believe In The Mood For Love also got an A

Modelosspoerete said...

I think BLACK SWAN will be nominated too for SAG Best Ensemble.


i'm basically changing my rating system for 2011.
from now on its


and so on. because movies need time to settle and sometimes you overvalue them a smidgeon at first and sometimes you undervalue them. and since i'm a tough grader people can assume "A" if they want to with an A/A- :)

adam k. said...

I don't see Black Swan placing in such a competitive ensemble field, but I suppose it could if it becomes a phenomenon. It does have Portman/Cassel/Kunis/Hershey/Ryder.

I did sorta forget about Animal Kingdom but I don't think it honestly has a such at SAG either.

adam k. said...

has a *shot* at SAG, rather...

limo london said...

His passion nothing more..

Dave Seeman said...

This movie looks pretty good. If you guys want to get more information about Christian Bale's character, Dickey, go to There's a documentary called "High on Crack Street" about him doing drugs and living in Lowell in the 90's. It's pretty interesting.
that's the link or you can check out the dvd here