February 26, 2011

Keeping it Real? Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in “The Fighter”

As promising as David O. Russell’s latest, The Fighter, initially appeared on paper, the Oscar-nominated film has turned out to be a mixed bag. Russell endeavors to honor the true events that the film is based on, but the inherent juiciness of the story leaves the film zigzagging from realism to melodrama, dragging the actors along.

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale star as Micky Ward and Dick Eklund, half-brothers who grew up in working-class Lowell, Massachusetts. The younger Micky is a promising boxer, his older brother Dick is a former pro boxer and current crack addict who insists on training his little brother although he can hardly keep his promises. Their mother, played by Melissa Leo, is Micky’s de facto manager, a scheming, domineering woman forever surrounded by her seven daughters -- tough, gum-smacking girls with big hair.

A tale of redemption?
At its core, you can say that The Fighter is a tale of redemption, but surrounding it is a tangled mess of stories. There’s Micky’s struggle to emancipate himself from the clutches of his brother and mother. There’s Dick’s drug habit and long road to sobriety. And finally, there’s the story of Micky, the boxer, and his desire to make a career out of his talent. You could say that everything ties back to Micky’s relationship to his family, but the sheer drama of the surrounding storylines weighs the film down, obscuring the central story.

The same sort of muddle can be seen in the performances. While Russell is clearly concerned with maintaining authenticity, the performances he draws out of his actors seem operate on two widely divergent levels. As Micky, Wahlberg once again gives a solid, low-key performance for Russell (they worked together previously in I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings), playing a decent guy torn between taking care of himself and putting his family first. Amy Adams refreshingly backs off from trying to twinkle like a star and plays the bartender girlfriend who provides much-needed clarity in his life. Also providing steady support is Jack McGee as Micky’s father.

"Look at me!": Christian Bale as Dicky Ecklund.

Then you have Christian Bale and Melissa Leo. No one could say that they weren’t going for authenticity, but the scenery-chewing of the two actors, exacerbated by the rowdy Greek chorus of sisters, completely tips the balance. As the troubled, delusional Dicky, Bale goes into gonzo actor mode, replete with a frame so emaciated his eyes seem to be popping out of his face, hair ripped out of his scalp, and twitchy, suspicious mannerisms. Leo as the mother is all peroxide-bleached hair and leopard-print clothes, bellowing histrionics in a guttural Boston accent. She is somewhere in between a stage mother and the mob grandma fellow Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver played in Animal Kingdom.

The performances are attention-getting, but there is a fundamental flaw: their selfish behavior and misguided actions are incomprehensible, and invoke zero empathy from the audience. That's not to say the audience needs to feel sympathetic towards them -- they really don't -- but the film’s rationalization of the delusional and egotistical mother and son seems to be nothing more than “Dicky is a nutty addict” and “Mama is crazy”.

The FighterHigh on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell

Any film based on true events faces the burden of being compared to the “real story”, and the people they are portraying. A point of interest is that the real-life Dicky Ward and his family were featured in a 1995 HBO documentary, High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell. The film followed three crack addicts living in Lowell, Massachusetts: Dicky, former boxer and “The Pride of Lowell”, a pregnant prostitute, and her boyfriend/pimp. Dicky in the doc is a ne’er-do-well who can’t break the cycle of committing burglaries, getting high, and going to jail. His mother, a haggard but steel-willed woman, is steadfastly protective of her oldest son. At one point, she even arranges a town get-together so people can gather to watch Dicky’s career high point (a 1978 fight against Sugar Ray Leonard), and donate 10 dollars each for Dicky’s bail money.

The real Dick Eklund, in High on Crack Street.
While those surface descriptions match neatly with Bale’s and Leo’s performances, it’s only after seeing their real-life counterparts that the Dicky, and to a lesser degree, Alice, make sense. The most striking thing about the real-life Dicky (who was glimpsed in the final credits of The Fighter) is the mournful, helpless look in his big eyes. He knows his lifestyle is bad for him, but he can’t help himself. It’s heartbreaking to seem him play with his baby boy, providing a sweet moment even though we know that he’ll get into trouble soon enough. The obvious remorse seen in the real-life Dicky is perhaps the most significant difference between him and Christian Bale’s portrayal, all loudmouth and false bravado. It's the flicker of humanity that Bale's performance never shows.

The real Alice, in High on Crack Street.
Alice only pops up in one scene in the doc, but it's worth nothing that she looks significantly older than the character Leo plays. (The Fighter begins as the HBO documentary is being filmed, and ends about 5 years later. Alice Ward passed away this year at the age of 79, which means Leo was 10 years younger than Ward at the time of The Fighter.) In another example of Hollywood's casting of "older" actresses, Leo is only around 10 years older than both Bale and Wahlberg. And as beaten-down as Leo is made to look, the single scene in High on... with the weathered-looking mama is a more effective example of the woman's demonstration of love for her child than the "I do everything for my kids" yammering in The Fighter.

Perhaps predictably, it's Bale and Leo who have received Oscar nominations this year, along with a clutch others for the film. (The ceremony will be on the 27th). Puzzling is the nomination of Russell for Best Director. Did he simply allow Wahlberg to be blasted away by Bale and Leo's "I'm acting, y'all" antics, or was there a creative decision in there? Either way, no-one got the memo on whose story it was.

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