Magazine | February 7, 2011, Issue

Film: Heavyweight Fights

Ross Douthat reviews The Fighter and Blue Valentine

Like many filmmakers beloved for their transgressiveness, David O. Russell is at his best when he plays things relatively straight. Russell’s reputation as an edgy provocateur rests on such films as the incest comedy Spanking the Monkey and the New Agey anti-Walmart satire I Heart Huckabees, and it’s been buttressed by his “bad boy” antics on his movies’ sets. (His furious tirade against Lily Tomlin during the Huckabees shoot, captured on video and disseminated online, vies with the famous recording of Christian Bale cursing out a Terminator Salvation cameraman as the best recent example of Hollywood ego run amok.) But his most artistically successful movies are also his squarest: 1999’s Three Kings, an unusually idealistic war movie set in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, and now this winter’s boxing film The Fighter.

How square is The Fighter? Square enough that its storyline will be predictable to anyone familiar with the clichés of sports movies and recovery dramas. The based-on-real-life hero, a welterweight fighter from Lowell, Mass., named Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), is a scrappy underdog from a troubled family who’s saved by the love of a good woman and rises to athletic glory against overwhelming odds. His older brother, Dickie (Christian Bale), is a former prizefighter turned crack addict who spends the first two acts pulling Micky toward the bottom with him, and the third finding his own way back up. If you go to the movies with any frequency, you’ve seen both these stories many times before.

But in Russell’s capable hands, their predictability seems fresh and new and moving. The setting is crucial to his feat: Lowell’s post-industrial blight, its mix of downwardly mobile white ethnics and probably illegal immigrants, is rendered so precisely and plausibly that you can feel the quiet desperation seeping through the screen. And Wahlberg’s solid turn as Ward (the kind of too-decent-for-his-own-good tough guy he was born to play) is backed by three vivid supporting performances: Bale as the gaunt, garrulous Dickie, somehow combining a junkie’s slouch and a boxer’s bounce; Melissa Leo as their mother, an Irish dragon who loves her family too much to do anything but tyrannize them; and Amy Adams, back to real acting after a raft of lighter-than-air romantic roles, as Ward’s barkeep girlfriend.

Thus grounded and humanized, the familiarities of the plot feel moving rather than rote. There’s nothing revelatory about The Fighter, but watching it for the first time is a bit like watching a classic that you’ve seen before: You’ll fall under its spell even though you know exactly where it’s going.

#page#If The Fighter makes cinematic clichés feel vital again, Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine goes to war with them. Half his movie is an affecting romance: A grittier and more grown-up Knocked Up, you might say, in which a footloose romantic named Dean (Ryan Gosling) woos an aspiring doctor named Cindy (Michelle Williams) and ends up as an unlikely father in the process. But their courtship, which is by turns extremely charming, extremely sexy, and tautly melodramatic (Cindy has a creep of a boyfriend and a lout of a father, among other hurdles that her suitor needs to overcome), is intercut with a look at the happily-ever-after, which finds them five years older and flat-out miserable. Cianfrance has taken the happy story Hollywood usually tells about love, in other words, and used it to tell a truly brutal story about marriage.

This brutality is sometimes hard to take. The half of the movie that covers Derek and Cindy’s courtship sprawls across weeks or months, with room for breath and space and nuance. In the half that covers their marriage’s dissolution, though, we’re imprisoned with them in a single brutal-beyond-belief 36 hours, which begins with the death of the family dog and spirals downward from there. Cianfrance’s refusal to show us any of the in-between is a clever conceit, but there’s a certain sadism about it as well: Reducing a half decade of love and marriage to its bright beginning and tortured end maximizes the audience’s anguish, without necessarily getting at the whole truth of whatever Derek and Cindy went through.

Or so I thought afterward, at least. In the moment, though, the lead performances held me rapt, and sold me completely on their story. Gosling does more to bridge the two halves of his character (you can see how the same qualities that make him charming as a suitor turn out to be his undoing as a husband), while Williams puts more distance between Cindy’s younger and older-sadder-wiser selves, playing the change rather than the continuity. But they’re both doing astonishing, heartbreaking work. In its conception, Blue Valentine is an interesting subversion of cinematic romance. In its execution, it’s a tragic love story that’s like nothing else you’ll see on screen this year.

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