Wednesday, January 26, 2011
In early December, I saw The Fighter with some friends of mine. Everyone went in skeptical – turned off by the trailer and not expecting much. When the lights came up, I was the only one who remained uncharmed by the movie. Mostly, I resisted it because I’m frustrated with the formula of sports films in general. As someone who does not care much for sports, I can never bring myself to care too much about the outcome of the climatic match at the end of sports films, and cannot buy into that single match epitomizing the salvation or defeat of the main character.
I can certainly get behind the consuming passion a character may have for a sport. That passion I can relate to – just not to sports. But I am entirely unable, in my own life, to tie too much importance to fleeting successes or failures. Perhaps this is because I have suffered far too many failures to allow them to define my life. But as a result, I have to take successes with a grain (or even a pound) of salt as well. To a degree, this attitude ties in to almost all movies I see. The only real, definitive ending is death (or mimes playing tennis). But whenever I see the boy and the girl get together at the end of a romantic comedy, I think about how difficult maintaining that relationship will be – particularly if the two leads are immature. When I see any film that ends with a trumped up victory, I reject it almost instantly and wonder how long before the euphoria wears off and real life settles in again.
For myself, the best endings are those that acknowledge their ephemeral nature. Perhaps they end with commitment, but leave the future vague. Perhaps they end with confusion. Or they end with irreparable tragedy. These are the endings that resonate with me. Yet, for the most part, sports films too easily weigh all their narrative drive and attention to winning a trumped up victory that somehow eradicates all other problems the main character may be facing. And that’s exactly what The Fighter does.
Initially, I found elements in the film that spoke to me directly. There was a heavy anti-family angle early in the movie. Wahlberg’s character, real life boxer Micky Ward, is training to be a successful boxer. He is managed and trained by his family, with Melissa Leo playing his mother and Christian Bale playing his brother. Unfortunately for Wahlberg, his family is not only flawed, but destructive in how they handle Micky – criticizing him, making unreasonable demands, and generally acting privileged and possessive of him. Enter the plucky chick bar tender, played by Amy Adams. She, too, proves demanding and privileged, but in a slightly more supportive way. These various forces clash, and as Wahlberg points out to them, it is he himself who has to fight this fight. In the end, everyone comes around, talks it out, learns to get along, and Wahlberg wins the fight. The film is –aack – PRO-family after all. What a dirty trick.
I initially criticized the ending as being too upbeat, but a friend of mine pointed out that it’s a true story. He did win that fight. Of course, in real life, he did suffer numerous losing streaks – including the last few fights he fought before retiring. But to be fair, this movie is about the beginning of his career. It’s about the hope that this win fueled him with. Just like at the end of happy romantic comedies. It’s all about the abundance of hope.
The Fighter has also received an impressive amount of praise for Christian Bale’s performance. I’m a fan of Christian Bale, but not this role. He does do an excellent job of losing weight, shaving the back of his head, and imitating all the mannerisms and ticks that the real life counterpart has – the movie helpfully includes a clip at the end so the audience can compare. Bale even manages to get his accent under control. But it is too much of a stock character who goes through stock plot points (I especially hate the scene when Bale’s character walks with a cake under his arm to a crack house and rejects his old life –at least the writers didn’t give him a big speech here), and Bale is doing too much of a clear imitation for my taste. If Bale were creating a character from scratch – with no real counterpoint – I would probably be more impressed at the decisions he made as an actor. But as it is, I can too easily dismiss it as attitude and echo.
When discussing this movie, a friend compared it to The Wrestler, a film that’s only barely similar mostly in the economy of their names. He criticized The Wrestler for dwelling in misery – for not having a happy ending. But of course Mickey Rourke’s character will win the match at the end – it’s in his contract. Wrestling is more of a show than a sport. The outcome of each match is per-ordained. The ending of The Fighter feels absolute – when it is far from being so. The ending of The Wrestler feel ambiguous, but for me it is much more concrete. At the end of The Wrestler, Rourke commits to his passion. He returns to the ring against the advice of his doctor and the aging stripper he really likes. There are immediate consequences to his filmic final decision. He temporarily resists his consuming, vitiating passion, but ultimately, he can’t. That’s what The Wrestler is about – how he is a slave to his craft. So in the end, it doesn’t matter how the fight goes. He will always come back to it. Again and again. My roommate has expressed frustration with the end of The Wrestler – calling it too ambiguous. But I find the ending much more definite than The Fighter. It does matter whether or not Rourke’s character dies. Of course he’ll die at some point – he’s human. But it doesn’t matter if he’ll die right now. What matters is that he can’t give it up –wrestling. For the makers of The Fighter, it IS all about the fight. If he were to lose the fight, what would that say about the artificial compromises those around Wahlberg has made? He has to win in order for the theme to play out as projected. Wahlberg even makes it clear he’s going to fight whether everyone gets along or not. Whereas The Fighter is about the beginning of a career, The Wrestler is about the end of one.
I suspect that what many will like about The Fighter is the veracity of the fight scenes. It’s how familiar the story is. I’m inclined to paint The Wrestler as more challenging, but I don’t want that to be an insult to anyone who chooses The Fighter over it. These are two different movies with different agendas. I only compare them because that is how they have been framed in numerous discussions recently. I find a much more personal connection with Rourke’s character in The Wrestler. He’s all alone. He even realizes this as he tries to connect with Marisa Tomei’s character. These are characters with a lifetime of baggage. These are the dregs of society who come back again and again to the dangerous vices they love. The Fighter is about a moment in life that has passed me by. A moment that I find insincere because it wraps all of life’s problems into one fleeting event. The Fighter is about everyone coming together and thinking positive thoughts so that the best of them can rise up and win a trophy.
That is my issue with sports films. I know that great achievements in sports are on the books and exist in history forever. They are impressive. Sports can be fun. They can be deadly. They can life-changing . . . but for all the typical drama that gets infused into sports movies, I find them just as inconsequential as their real life counterparts. It’s nice to see a good guy win an award, but that’s not what grabs me by the core. I still see The Fighter as typical genre Oscar bait. It’s well done, but it’s not my bag.