The Fighter

In On the Waterfront, a down-for-the-count Marlon Brando pined to his brother that he coulda been a contender, he coulda been somebody. And that’s basically what the half-brothers Dicky and Micky say to each other in David O. Russell’s The Fighter—substituting the past conditional for the past and future tenses, respectively. In the end, they both upgrade to the present tense. Although it’s based on the true story of Micky Ward—the Lowell, Mass., homeboy who became the World Boxing Union’s welterweight champion in 2000—the movie resembles Rocky: before Rocky lost his innocence. (To sequels—not to Adrian.) There’s a passing resemblance, too, to The Pope of Greenwich Village, with its good-brother / bad-brother dichotomy; Christian Bale seems to have based his Dicky on Eric Roberts’s wriggly, petulant hood Paulie. Dicky is himself a former champ; he became the pride of Lowell after defeating Sugar Ray Leonard back in 1978. But, by the time The Fighter is set, in the early 1990s, Dicky has devolved into a gaunt-faced crackhead; he still takes a swing every time he takes a step but his infectious swag is like a storm system brewing behind a pallid kabuki mask. The rings he now fights in are under his eyes.

Has ever an actor been more appropriately named than Christian Bale: two words that denote aery earnestness, a touch of the divine as well as a smack of malign, and even a hint of anguish? This Brit made a great American Psycho; but once he lost his mind, it looked as though he’d never recover it. Sanity appears to bore him. As The Dark Knight, he was torpid—perhaps because the director drooled over the banality of Heath Ledger’s evil and didn’t care a lick about good. But Bale looses focus, too; his wackadoodle dexterity was obvious in The Machinist, The Prestige, and Rescue Dawn—but he was spewing solar flares out of black holes. Despite being a cacophony of tweaky rhythms, his Dicky does have a core—a fallen brah’s braggadocio and a cracked sense of street humor. Mark Wahlberg’s exceptionally sweet and mannered performance as Micky seems to have grounded Bale; maybe Wahlberg’s selflessness tempered Bale’s masochism. Although Wahlberg doesn’t have any great scenes to himself, he conveys the saturnine softness of Brando; his up-turned mouth is always edging for a fight, but his eyes are far more conciliatory. It’s not a revelation by now, but he’s long since wiped Marky Mark off the marquee. He forces my mind to open wide enough to entertain the possibility that the next De Niro could be Justin Bieber.

The Fighter is a fine piece of work, though not a work of art. It doesn’t transcend its genre, like The Wrestler did (Aronofsky is listed as an executive producer); but it hits all the familiar notes in a way that wrings out more than the familiar sentiments. The first scene made me a little antsy: the -ickys careen through the hood—M- a little abashed; D-, ghetto blaster in hand, a fistic Pied Piper taking his town in tow—both on an apparent course for working-class Capra-corn. But the beauty of this picture is its immersion into local color; Russell is never above his subject—and neither is he looking at it from below, with reverence. I rolled my eyes when Dennis Lehane’s Mass-hole exceptionalism soiled Casey Affleck’s opening narration in the otherwise mild Gone Baby Gone; but these Lowellians are too tough, and, perhaps, too insular, to buy into that brand of bunk. The few daubs of style that the director allows himself—like the bouffant-topped Greek chorus that the boxers’ sisters comprise—may be a little too coarse, because he’s dealing with real people. (Otherwise, they’re not too different from the upper-crust caricatures in The King’s Speech or 8 1/2. They make for a witty “compile character,” cool-hearted though the effect may be.) The whole family reverts to obeisant putty whenever their materfamilias, Alice, is around. Melissa Leo—yet another appropriate surname!—gives Alice the squawk of an albatross and the pride of a lioness. Her children address her by name, but maybe they should call her “Sir”; her family is an enterprise, and she’s both queen and C.E.O. Russell even makes the music-to-loose-your-virginity-to-in-the-backseat-of-an-’86-Plymouth overcome any sports-montage stigmas: These sonic ’roids may be clichés, but they’re part of the guys’ pop culture.

There is a flipside. At one point, when Dicky’s in jail, he watches a nationally broadcast T.V. special about his decline: High on Crack Street. At first, he provides a sardonic commentary for his fellow inmates—who cheer his every jeer—but he comes to see that the joke is on him, and his family. This idea of seeing oneself reflected in a highly public mirror is as contemporary as it is fascinating; but it is probably the only interesting theme that the filmmakers develop. And they make a few goofs. We’re never sure when we are in the timeline, or how much time has passed since the last scene; and it seemed strange that Micky wasn’t awarded a moment with the ladies of his life—Alice and his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams)—after winning the championship. But Russell had been suffering from Mark Romanek Syndrome—this is his first feature since I Heart Huckabees, six years ago—so maybe he needed something a little stiff (that is to say, conventional) to aid in his convalescence. His commercial strategy seems akin to his heroes’ Zen pugilism: clobber your opponent once he thinks you’re a goner. David Edelstein called The King’s Speech a “middlebrow masterpiece”; The Fighter is a nothin’-special knockout.

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True Grit

Early on in the Coen brothers’ True Grit, the characters go to see a trio of desperadoes hang. As soon as the condemned Chocktaw opens his mouth to recite his last words, the executioner drapes a black hood over his head and the platform beneath gives way to kingdom come. It’s a sly trick—one that wasn’t in Charles Portis’s novel. (The cut-short convict was a Christian proselyte, and thus received a benediction from our devout heroine, a 14-year-old Arkansan named Mattie Ross.) But this low hi-jink seems to have asphyxiated the bad thoughts in the Coens’ collectively dirty mind; True Grit is a breath of fresh air. Their last two outings, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man, seemed to be the work of depressives seeking converts; but, here, they’ve actually fleshed out the human dimensions that Portis had stomped flat. When his novel was published, in 1968, it seemed as if the Old West had gone south. Manifest Destiny was being called into question, so the new frontier was looking more like Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns—which chopped off our home-grown genre’s moralistic meatballs. Cowboys, once chivalrous, were reduced to cold-blooded mercenaries. Narrated by Mattie, who’s clawed her way into the Indian Territory to apprehend the man who murdered her father, the book reads like a nursery rhyme—one that’s simple and sweet until you realize it’s about the bubonic plague. Portis keeps his distance from Rooster Cogburn, his zealous U.S. marshal; though the character claims he’s motivated by his paycheck, that itch affecting his trigger finger is impossibly hard to diagnose. So when John Wayne, the old guard’s most visible—and flamingly unambiguous—icon, was cast as Rooster in the 1969 film, it was a black joke befitting wry ol’ rigor-Portis.

Fortunately, the Coens have Jeff Bridges in their holster. And, generous actor that he is, his Rooster isn’t the only cock of the walk; the brothers have spread the love to all three primary characters: Cogburn, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). Although the book is for what today are called “young-adult” readers, its prose is barren to the point of abstraction, with an antiquated argot and dawdling eccentrics that seemed like grist for a Coen downer: No Country for Kids. But dialogue that read awkwardly on the page flows charmingly on the screen; the movie’s mythic quality is expressed verbally rather than visually. (The Coens were smart not to linger on played-out revisionism, though Mattie’s spitting on a member of the James gang at a Wild West Show seems a little desultory compared to the text: “These old-timers had … led dangerous lives … and now this is all they were fit for, to show themselves to the public like strange wild beasts of the jungle.”) Bridges is like a Sesame Street Muppet desperately in need of a bath, and Damon has the splendor of a toy soldier brought to life in a fairy tale. Josh Brolin appears briefly as a cutthroat who takes fashion tips from the Geico caveman; but for one transcendent moment, he conveys the crestfallen innocence of Lenny from Of Mice and Men.

And then there’s Mattie, with braids so tight that I feared they’d tear off her scalp. In some ways, this tomboy is a great-grandmother of the genus Mama Grizzly: unflinching, self-righteous, utterly lacking in creativity. She’s totally pragmatic—but resigned to practicality, as if it were her only option. This is how the elder Mattie—who relates the story years later, as a curmudgeonly spinster—describes her Calvinist belief in the Elect:

I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it. Read I Corinthians 6: 13 and II Timothy 1: 9, 10. Also I Peter: 2, 19, 20 and Romans 11: 7. There you have it. It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too.

I found her far more fascinating than the obfuscated resentments that burble out of Rooster whenever he hits the bottle; she’s vivified solely by her sense of duty. Mattie’s so-called pragmatic outlook actually deludes her, and the newcomer Steinfeld is fantastic—beautifully expressive of how little this paleo-feminist really understands the world. Mattie hounds, threatens, and finally rips off a local businessman as if it were her divine right to; and she’s clearly pleased with her shrewy hondling. But when, on the next day, she tries to haggle with him again, this time politely, she doesn’t get why her presence is unwelcome. Mattie wants to be nice to him and give him a fair shake because she thinks she merely beat him at a game; but the bankrupt merchant never saw it as playtime.

I don’t think True Grit is the Coens’ best film, and it certainly isn’t their most interesting. Richard Brody, from his online perch at The New Yorker, calls the movie “toothless”—but hasn’t the Western worn dentures for decades? The only people who aren’t convinced by now that John Wayne’s West was lost a long time ago—presumably the same subset that responds to rhetoric like “Osama bin Laden: Wanted Dead or Alive”—will probably never be swayed by hard-bitten movies that purport to depict frontier life “as it really was.” With its unobtrusive aesthetic, and handful of severed fingers, this film may be one of the closest brushes with verisimilitude that the brothers have ever had. But, with the makers of Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the bar for out-and-out realism is as low as the noises they have gurgling out of Bridges. Besides, the Western has always been a tall tale, a metaphor: the prequel to early-to-mid-20th-century America. We’ve simply lost touch with the referent. The myth may be under a tombstone, but the Coens have left flowers at its grave; they’ve given us something from our imaginary past that we—and, given its hefty box office intake, I do mean we—can all share. And, for the first time in years, they’ve allowed us to hold onto our emotional responses—complex ones, in some cases—without getting metaphysically mugged. Maybe that takes true grit.

The King's Speech

What is The King’s Speech saying? Is it about the importance of symbols, like the British royal family? Or is it about the importance of another kind of symbol: the little golden statuette that the whole movie seems to be gesturing “call me” to? I hope it picks up for Colin Firth. He’s tremendously eloquent as the stuttering King George VI; one can sense his every repressed thought, even the ones that good taste, psychosomatic trauma, and crippling propriety impede him from enunciating. It’s a more sustained performance, I think, than the often-brilliant one he gave, as another person suffering from multi-vectorial repression, in A Single Man; and it’s better-humored than much of the regal portraiture we get: He’s even a bit of a goofus. In a smaller role, as the Queen Mum-to-be, Helena Bonham Carter also shimmers like a royal jewel; one can see how the human resources that she devoted to her husband informed the public figure who was revered until her death, in 2002. (At the very least, she was more popular with her people than Carter’s screeching monarch in her real-life lovey’s Alice in Wonderland.) As a hammy, hardscrabble Shakespearean actor, Geoffrey Rush is also quite good, though he puts in the “gravitas” that Firth was so kind to take out; at times, he could be mistaken for an eroded statue.

Rush plays the catalyst: Lionel Logue is not only the king’s speech therapist, but also his psychologist and cheerleader; ergo, The King’s Speech is basically Ordinary People—but with extraordinary people! As a subject, the film is beautifully conceived; it has a great real-life basis; an excellent angle for viewing history; and the kind of transatlantic cunning that lets audiences identify proudly with the low-born Logue’s democratic know-how while still adulating the royals—in a somewhat classier way than the tabs that psych us up for the forthcoming nuptials of Edward’s great-grandson, Prince William. (It also avoids perturbing the present sitters-on-the-throne by only skimming the surface when it comes to the scummy abdicator George VIII—played by a multivalent Guy Pearce—and his alleged Nazi sympathies. For Edward, his brother was a royal pain in the ass; but, these days, the scandal that sooted George’s marriage to the divorcée Wallis Simpson can be made to seem very archaic.)

The movie is also careful to dodge any theme that history lobs at it, except for such commonplaces as patriotism and overcoming adversity—and all that crap. Though there’s something to be said for the doctor-patient rapport; and the film is genuinely affecting when it deals with a rather ambiguous virtue: a people’s need for a strong leader (albeit a figurehead) to unite them in troubled times. Its wit, narrative charge, and performances make The King’s Speech engrossing for the ears, if not for the eyes. With a rich, bold, and modulated color palette, Danny Cohen’s cinematography is quite lovely; but, the director, Tom Hooper—or whoever it is who can be blamed for the blocking—stages the shots ludicrously. Beethoven helps him out during the rousing climax, but Carter should sue the director and editor for mishandling her introduction to Mrs. Logue (Jennifer Ehle). Even Westminster Abbey seems like a set (or worse, a computer simulation); maybe it is. The visuals make inexplicably extensive use of wide-angle lenses in a way that’s suggestive of the weirdo work by the expat photographer William Klein and the thick-skinned formalism of Stanley Kubrick. Everything is either dead-center or so imbalanced that I waited for some little wanker to fill the negative space and make lewd faces in the foreground. God save the King.