REVIEW: Wahlberg, Not Bale, Is the One to Watch in The Fighter

Movieline Score:

David O. Russell's The Fighter is a movie with a chip on its shoulder. Whenever it should bounce backward, it lunges forward; it jabs instead of feints, and stomps down hard when it needs to dance. Based on the true story of pro-boxer half-brothers Dickie Eklund and Micky Ward, from the working-class town of Lowell, Mass., The Fighter masquerades as an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser in which an underdog makes good, largely by accepting the love and support of his family. There's just one problem: Micky -- the underdog, played by Mark Wahlberg -- has every reason to think the members of his family are clowns and losers, but in the end, the movie won't let him recognize it. Russell sets up a gritty, grimy tale of rivalry and resentment between brothers, only to insist on steering the thing into one big group hug. It's a case of a director either not following his instincts, or not having many to follow in the first place -- it's hard to say which.

Christian Bale plays Dicky Eklund, a former welterweight who was at one point called "the pride of Lowell" after going the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard, even though he lost the fight. The movie opens in 1993, by which point Dicky is the pride of no one -- beyond, that is, his cartoonishly coarse, doting mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), who looks past her son's glassy eyes and leering grin and sees only a pugilistic little prince. Dicky is an unrepentant crackhead: As the movie opens, he's being followed around by a team of filmmakers; he mutters to anyone who cares to listen (a shockingly large number of people, actually) that the movie guys are documenting his big comeback, though they're really just recording what happens when a local hero gives it all up for the crack pipe.

Dicky grins for the camera -- the documentary guys' and Russell's -- his mouth twisting into a wretched smirk. He slings wisecracks of the "Your mother wears army boots" variety. He has the woozy, not-quite-there demeanor of a boxer who's absorbed too many punches, and the already-scrambled eggs of his brain have been further fried by drugs. Still, he insists on "training" his younger half-brother, Micky, prematurely taking credit for guiding him to some future imagined victory, while Mama Alice gazes upon his gaunt, snickering visage, adoringly.

On the other hand, she has little use for Micky, the "good" son who now has a shot at the fame Dicky squandered. She insists on managing Micky's career, which means only that when Micky loses a fight, it's Micky's fault; when he wins, it's all thanks to Dicky. Meanwhile, Micky -- stalwart, hardworking, disciplined -- tries to be a decent father to his young daughter (he's estranged from the girl's mother) and tentatively hopes to kindle a romance with a local bartender in short shorts, Charlene (Amy Adams), a woman with good common sense and a nice set of buns. Isn't that what every working-class joe and aspiring boxer wants?

The tragedy of The Fighter is that Wahlberg's performance suggests a character who wants more. And yet Russell barely seems to notice how much subtlety Wahlberg brings to his role, or to the movie at large. He's far more fixated on the vaguely incestuous bond between Dicky and Alice, and his camera is crazy about them, too: He indulges all sorts of brassy overacting and "Looka me, I'm a drug addict!" grandstanding, as if he believed this captures the flavor of the "local" people.

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Comments

  • t.davis says:

    If I wanted to see a crackhead, I could just drive down H ollywood Blvd. and do it for free. Don't expect folks to line up for this, as the new house speaker would say, chickencrap.

  • Donald says:

    "...it adds up to a nice, tall toothpick-tower of technique."
    Stephanie, you are awesome! This review confirms my worst fears about this movie - though with the admittedly annoying caveat that it might still be worth seeing for Mark Wahlberg's performance.
    Finally, Stephanie, when is your Best of 2010 list out? Can't wait...

  • Bruno Charest says:

    This is unbelievable , totally BS. this movie is totally crap and how could the writers, producers and Mark Wahlberg forget about Arturo Gatti. Micky Ward doesn't exist if it would not have been for Arturo Gatti. Extremly disappointed.
    I cannot believe Ward accepted such film about his life and career.

  • jordan says:

    if you wanted to see a crackhead you would just drive down hollywood blvd? seriously? does anyone even watch movies now or do they just read reviews and follow what other people say? i mean i could understand hating on a movie you saw and having a valuable argument like the reviewer does. wow

  • Jason says:

    Couldn't disagree more with this review. I saw "The Fighter" at a press screening a few weeks ago, and I think it's easily one of the best films of the year. I keep waiting for another Oscar-bait film to have the same powerful effect on me, but so far "The Fighter" is in a class of its own. And seriously: a 5 1/2 for this but a friggin' 9 for "The Tourist"? One Armond White in the world is already one too many, Stephanie.
    Also, Zacharek is inexplicably punishing the movie for accurately telling a real-life story. Micky did reconcile with his family. And while I was also hoping Micky would cut them out for good (for dramatic purposes, if nothing else), I ultimately admire this film for telling the story of one family doing the hard work of reconciliation after many years of seriously grievous circumstances. It would have been easier to tell a story about a man severing all his ties to his family and leaving them severed, but it's far more complex and rewarding to show how those ties can be rebuilt. In that sense, this is one of the greatest and most unlikely "family" films I've ever seen.

  • jim says:

    This reviewer obviously doesn't understand big families. No matter how disfunctional, counter-productive and chaotic they are.....they are still his family....and there is still love (at least a form of it).... and he could never desert them...no matter the consequences.
    His girlfriend taught him some perspective, and she taught him how to keep the family at arms-length.....but he grew up in a big, blue-collar, Irish Catholic family where the "code" says you never...ever...turn your back on family.
    Clearly, the reviewer found Mickey Ward's family to be despicable and felt they should be punished....or at least banished from his life....and the reviewer blames the writters and directors for not giving him the satisfaction of watching the family get what they deserved. But there is a problem with that sentiment.......this movie is based on real people....and Mickey Ward has remained close to his family in real life.
    It sounds like the reviewers biggest beef is with the way Mickey Ward chose to live his life.....maybe Mickey should have been more concerned with how his decisions would play on the Big Screen while he was living his life.

  • Chris says:

    Just a little corrective for the all-knowing genius Stephanie: there's Youtube footage of the real Dicky Eklund which confirms that he actually is a motormouth, twitchy, nervous, bustling, high-energy chatterbox who does almost all the talking when sitting next to his quiet, soft-spoken brother Micky. Also, people who knew the real Alice confirm that Melissa Leo's portrayal is not an exaggeration; and the real woman was an even more extreme character.
    It's also a fact, of course, that Stephanie regularly praises flamboyant, showy, "look at me!" acting when it suits her purposes. When she calls Melissa Leo's acting "cartoonishly coarse," the same could be said of Meryl Streep's performance as Julia Child in JULIE & JULIA, but of course Stephanie liked that movie, so suddenly "more is more," big-gestured, showy performance styles are a valid choice when they just happen to suit Stephanie's tastes. The same could be said of Angelina's starmaking turn in GIA or her Oscar-winning turn in GIRL, INTERRUPTED. Again, "look at me!" "more is more" showboating acting is just fine when Saint Angelina's the one doing it. Hypocrisy: thy name is Zacharek.

  • Bill says:

    Congratulations to Stephanie for having the guts to call Bale and Leo on their effective but undeniably over-the-top performances and for praising Wahlberg for a marvelously layered turn which is bound to be underappreciated in the shadow of hambones like Bale and Leo. Adams and Wahlberg are the real heroes of this movie, but their kind of nuance usually goes unnoticed. Thanks, Stephanie, for noticing.

  • S.T. VanAirsdale says:

    Hey "Chris," you're on thin ice. E-mail me; we need to talk before your comments will appear again. stva [at] movieline.com

  • CJ in NY says:

    I couldn't disagree more with this review. The movie was pitch-perfect, and it's odd that SZ takes issue with the fact that it's unrealistic or unsatisfying because the main character doesn't ditch his family. Actually, most people find that their family in some way keeps them down or challenges personal progess, yet the beauty and complexity of life is that that same family made you who you are, which is exactly what Micky is experiencing. The crux of it is balance, and how he is able to achieve success by balancing the legacy of his past with his ambitions for the future, as perfectly depicted in the fight where he trained with O'Keefe and his girlfriend, but he used the strategy that he learned from his brother to actually seal the deal. I always find SZ's reviews interesting, but I thought this one was really way off. See the film, it's excellent.

  • Sally says:

    I too was annoyed by Bale's portrayal of Dickey, but when the end credits roll and you see the REAL dickey and mickey, you see that Bale's portrayal was spot-on. Also there is an online movie, "Crack Street" with Dickey and boy, he was wasted. Bale said he spent some days with Dickey to get the characterization down, and he got it.
    I suggest that everybody see that Crack Street movie. Alice is in the documentary, and Melissa Leo IS Alice.
    Also Steph, go back to the end credits. You will see that Mickey is the quiet one and Dickey is the clown.
    The problem I had was Wahlberg, who was so quiet and understated, he was boring. No wonder the others acted circles around him. Wahlberg was like the paint on the wall in this movie. Just being physically in shape and boxing physically isn't enough. You have to bring the personality out.
    As for the family, I can understand where Jim is coming from. This is an Irish family. Not a black family or Hispanic, but Irish, and they stick together.

  • Jared says:

    Of course Wahlberg's character is completely overshadowed by the others... Micky Ward really was completely overshadowed by his family. His mother was incredibly overbearing and controlling, and his brother was one of the most famous kids in Lowell after his fight with Sugar Ray Leonard until Micky got his career going (under his brother's shadow). I suggest reading "Irish Thunder" if you want to understand the story before trying to pick it apart.

  • Scott Doyle says:

    This is why I love SZ as a critic. I enjoyed 'The Fighter' a great deal, and thought it was a terrific movie. And yet I find myself having a tough time disagreeing with most of her points. Criticism as its best should make you think about storytelling in a deeper way, and agree or disagree with her, SZ's reviews do that.

  • Michael says:

    Agree with every word. The minute I saw Leo & Bale (does Hollywood really have that much affection for arrogant, abusive, overrated "actors") push their way onto the screen, delivering the worst caricatures I've seen in years, I knew we were watching two performers salivating at the thought of snatching Oscars and other awards handed out for scenery chewing.
    Bless the Baftas for recognising the best supporting performances of the year. I've only ever been interested in who gets nominated during award season but I've never wanted to see two nominees miss out so badly. Rush and Bonham-Carter (or Steinfeld) will hopefully benefit from a climate change in the final voting round.

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