The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of The Fighter was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
An underdeveloped script can only hide for so long behind good direction and performances. In the case of The Fighter, the amount of time that director David O. Russell and his talented cast are able to distract the audience from underwritten characters and the clichés that they act out is approximately ninety minutes. It’s too bad that the film goes on for another twenty minutes.
Set in the blue-collar town of Lowell, Massachusetts, Mark Wahlberg is perfectly cast as Mickey Ward, a promising boxer held back by his domineering mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), and his crackhead brother, Dicky (Christian Bale). Alice and Dicky act as Mickey’s manager and trainer, respectively. But they both do a lousy job in their roles with Alice setting up fights that Mickey has no shot at winning and Dicky often too strung-out in a crack house to properly prepare Micky for the fights. When he gets pummeled by a boxer twenty pounds bigger than he is, Mickey takes a break from boxing.
Spurred on by his new girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), Mickey makes a break from Dicky and Alice. He signs on with a new manager set up by his father, George (Jack McGee), and trains with O’Keefe (Mickey O’Keefe, playing himself), a local policeman who sees the potential for Mickey to break away from the family who is holding him back.
Based upon the real life of Mickey Ward, the story is rife with conflict and dramatic potential. For most of the way, Wahlberg, Bale, Leo, and Adams manage to sell their characters as people with hidden wounds and secret reasons for behaving the way they do, but eventually the script catches up to them with a poorly written scene between Dicky and Charlene where they hash out their differences to do the right thing for Mickey. It’s a moment that should be a dramatic turning point in an inspiring underdog story. But the dialogue is so frustratingly on-the-nose, with the characters speaking in obvious platitudes that not even Bale and Adams can keep from sounding forced, that it pulled me right out of the movie. It was then that I realized that the rest of the film contained countless scenes of characters explaining who they are and why they have turned out this way in fairly unrealistic ways. It was strictly the impressive performances that kept these scenes from coming across as obvious and simplistic.
But there is something to be said for Russell and his cast that they are able to take a script that squanders such a good story and make it into a watchable, very entertaining film for most of its running time.
Never before has Wahlberg’s reserved, nice-guy persona been put to such good use. Mickey spends much of the film (and, I assume, his life up to the film’s starting point), trying to make everyone happy while quietly shrinking in his brother’s outsized shadow (Dicky is the self-proclaimed “pride of Lowell” for going ten rounds with Sugar Ray Leonard and knocking him down). The hurt, embarrassment, and confusion about the fact that his mother dotes on washed-up loser Dicky, while he is the son who has a shot to make something of himself, is ever-present on Wahlberg’s face. He easily made me forget that much of the mess Mickey has made of his life is his own making, and had me rooting for him to finally stand up for himself.
But the questions I had about the many other relationships in the film all point to a frustrating lack of detail when it comes to the characters. Why is Alice so blind to Dicky’s faults? Why does George put up with the way Alice treats Mickey? He obviously thinks Mickey should strike out on his own, away from the family, but until Dicky is sent to prison, George doesn’t make a move. Sometimes it is best to leave questions unanswered, but here the lack of answers become frustrating. Even worse, these questions make Leo and McGee work overtime to keep their characters from being total enigmas, while all around them other characters are spelling out their motivations in forced question and answer sessions.
Even with all my complaints regarding the script, I have to admit that I enjoyed the film. Russell adds some much-needed humor and propels the film along to its inevitable, but uplifting conclusion. As a feel-good movie and exercise in impressive acting, The Fighter is worthy entertainment. Just be prepared for the post-movie letdown as you realize the puzzle pieces don’t fit.
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