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.