It’s difficult to know what to say about The Fighter, because the film doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to say about itself. It’s pretty blatant Oscar-bait and, while there are plenty of good points, I just have a hard time caring much one way or the other for it.
The movie is based on the true story — that’s always a plus — of boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his half-brother, former boxer Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale). It’s set and shot in working-class Lowell, Massachusetts — Academy voters love lower-earning white folk — where Micky paves roads in between training and fighting. Their mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), manages Micky, after a fashion, while Dicky acts as Micky’s trainer, when Dicky’s not off indulging his drug habit or getting in trouble with the law. And then there’s the Greek chorus of overbearing, stereotypically white-trash sisters.
Alice keeps setting up fights for Micky that seem better for her ego than for his career, and he’s turning into a bit of a stepping-stone other boxers use to propel themselves up the ranking ladder. He’s got talent, and he gets offers to train full-time — even to get paid for it — with a professional gym out in Las Vegas, but still he clings loyally to his family even as they drag him down. But after meeting Charlene (Amy Adams), a college dropout working in a local bar, she starts giving him the confidence to break away from them and do what’s right for himself. It helps that Dicky’s legal troubles are getting deeper, which prevents him from interfering as much with Micky’s life.
There’s plenty of scenery-chewing to go around. Amy Adams gets some juicy monologues packed with righteous indignation; Melissa Leo is a natural as the wiry, fiery Boston-Irish matriarch; and Christian Bale turns in a wonderfully goofy, gaunt portrayal of a working-class washout trying to pull himself back from the precipice. There’s so much blustery action around the periphery that it only highlights the boring placidity at the center.
It’s not that Wahlberg fails to play his part, but there’s just nothing to Micky’s role in the first place. I can easily see how growing up among the youngest in a big, loud family like that he’d adapt by becoming quiet and obliging and generally going with the flow. It actually explains a lot about his boxing style, where he goes round after round taking a beating and trying to let the other guy blow himself out before he takes any positive action towards winning. But it doesn’t make for much of a movie.
Charlene says at one point that it’s sad that Micky let his family take his boxing career away through neglect and mismanagement, but all he does is replace their directions with hers. We’re left wondering, if he cares so little that he lets everyone push him around then why should we care any more than that? The obvious answer is that we shouldn’t.
Worth it: not really. Definitely not for the theater.
Bechdel test: fail.