04 January 2013

Acting a Fool

The Fighter
2010, USA
David O. Russell

Biopics of athletes sit about as far down on my list of filmic interests as anything I can think of at the moment, so describing David O. Russell's The Fighter as "watchable" might sound like a recommendation coming from me. The film got quite a bit of attention a year or so ago for its performances, winning Academy Awards for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo in the supporting categories. The performances failed to impress me, however, and I think this is a large scaled reflection of the essential problem I have with the film as a whole. The Fighter is competent on nearly every level one could come up with to judge it. The cinematography is nice to look at. The screenplay is solid and mostly absent of sports-biopic clichés. The sound mix is professional. The direction is engaging. The pace is consistent. The actors all act their hearts out. Competent is great for award hand-outs and ideal for thoughtless viewings on HBO while you're nursing a cold. Unfortunately though, when competent is the only thing going for a film, it almost always cancels out interesting.

By noticing the individual competency levels of those dissected elements of this insipidly-titled film, I've already lost the illusion, which is absolutely essential to a sports biopic. The film crew creates the illusion of reality in order to convey morals, lessons, truths about life and the human existence. And yet the element for which The Fighter has received the most praise and accolades is the one that causes the most harm in abating the illusion. In the four central roles, Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Melissa Leo all do what they're supposed to: inhabit their characters. All four have proven themselves respectable thespians throughout their careers, but the artifice of their performances was on constant display here. There's never a moment when it isn't blindingly clear that you're watching "acting." The gold statues now on Bale and Leo's mantles don't correctly lead to the conclusion that Bale and Leo were better than Wahlberg or Adams; in fact, they seem merely indicative of the "volume" at which these actors did their job, which also seemed to have been determined by the juiciness of their respective characters' sketches.

Wahlberg's acting was easily the quietest of the quartet; I mean, there's not a lot of meat to a character who's a "nice guy" who loves his brother, his mother, and his girlfriend and simply wants to do well in his chosen career. Wahlberg wasn't nominated for an Oscar (as an actor). Adams was, considering the fact that she had a few more bells and whistles at her disposal. She donned an accent, looked "unglamorous," and played a character with a few more than Wahlberg's. Adams' character is kind of a tomboy, dropped out of college in a town where the option of such a thing is close to unheard of, admits to having a slight drinking problem that may have been the reason she stopped her education, and becomes the target of severe verbal and physical animosity from Wahlberg's seven sisters. Effectively, she lost out to Leo, who is on the highest factory setting the entire film. Her character is an overbearing mother of nine, who chain smokes, has a tacky haircut and matching wardrobe, and suffers from a bad case of denial about many things in her life, not least of which being the fact that she may not love her younger son (Wahlberg) as much as she does his older brother (Bale). In a move that's become the actor's unofficial signature, Bale literally embodies his character, dramatically altering his physical appearance in the service of his craft. And he gets the juiciest of all the characters: the golden child of a small town whose glory is in rapid decline thanks to an addiction to crack, something which slides down to negatively affect his other roles as father to a toddler and trainer to his younger brother.

The "volume" of Bale's performance – loudest of the four – unintentionally silences whatever emotional truths the film tries to reveal... what those might have been, I haven't a guess since I was too distracted by craft and didn't especially care much in the first place. The illusion vanishes, and what's left is a person pretending to have a conversation with another person using sentences that were written by yet another person, who was giving words and thoughts to a pretend version of an actual person who lived. If The Fighter had emotional truths or life lessons to be discerned from its narrative, they were spoken to these deaf ears and shown to these eyes that couldn't stop looking at the man behind the curtain... doing his job.

With: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Frank Renzulli, Mickey O'Keefe, Erica McDermott, Sugar Ray Leonard, Caitlin Dwyer, Alison Folland, José Antonio Rivera, Anthony Molinari

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