Monday, December 13, 2010
The Art of the Skank
I had a lot of things to talk about upon seeing David O. Russell's excellent movie The Fighter. But the first thing wasn't about top-line stars and Oscar contenders like Christian Bale and Melissa Leo and Mark Wahlberg. No, my first thought, which I tweeted immediately after getting home, was that I dearly wish I could've sat in on the casting session for the Ward/Ecklund sisters. Talk about a triumph of realistic, lived-in, unglamorous casting, and they're the most reliable source of comedy in a movie that was way funnier than I expected it to be.
I suppose when I first saw the Fighter trailer, with its rote bullet-pointing of all the usual sports movie tropes (Adversity! Family! The love of a good woman!), it made me forget everything I like about David O. Russell's filmmaking style. Specifically that he keeps a wide gaze on his characters -- both in the points of view he juggles and also the multiplicity of angles from which his leads are being acted upon. Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is getting it from all sides: promoters, trainers, his monstrously self-involved crackhead brother (Christian Bale), his girlfriend (Amy Adams) and most frighteningly, his mother (Melissa Leo) and a gaggle of sisters, numbering at at various times from five to seventeen. Each one's hair bigger and more hilarious than the last, their faces telling stories of misspent youth, barfights, scratch-off lottery near-misses, and fetal alcohol syndrome. It's like Amy Ryan's squish-faced cohort from Gone Baby Gone went and volunteered for an experimental cloning protocol that netted her $90 and 8-10 identical twins.* Every single one of their line-readings, non-verbal reactions, and braying insults hurled at Amy Adams absolutely killed. And Adams was no slouch either -- she couldn't keep up in the looks department, but she sure could throw down with that army of Massachusetts harridans.
*See the comments below for this mind-blower: one of the Ward/Ecklund sisters is played by Jill Quigg, who WAS Amy Ryan's squish-faced cohort from Gone Baby Gone! So there aren't two people out there who look like that. And make sure you click on that link Nick included about Jill's recent exploits.
All in all, The Fighter kind of blew me away, particularly in relation to my expectations. The sports-movie stuff was so well-supported by a first two-thirds that really invests in its characters and sets up that final third so that the (relatively rote, sure) sports-movie machinations had consequences for people we cared about. It's almost impossible to do a "win it for the ol' hometown" story beat that doesn't have me rolling my eyes, but Russell really captures that mentality that hits dying, beat-down northeast cities, where individual triumphs and fuck-ups are felt by everyone.
I feel like all these achievements are bound to be overshadowed by the scenery-chewing Oscar campaigns of Bale and Leo. Which is fine, I thought they were both insanely compelling and a total credit to the film. I don't much care for Christian Bale and expected him to be a twitchy annoyance, but he digs deep into Dickie and pulls out the frustrated, maddening guy who's never going to quite learn all the lessons he should (even "reformed" he still takes all the air out of a room). And while Leo certainly goes whole hog into the Monstrous Ma type, it's tough to say she doesn't earn the raves. She manages to convince me she mothered that army of bar-harpies up there, at the very least.