Dir. David O. Russell
(2010, R, 115 min)
★ ★

The underdog sports movie is a genre, along with the substance-abusing-artist movie, that Hollywood keeps making and award-givers keep voting for. The latest example is The Fighter, which is a workmanlike but not especially distinguished example of the formula. It hits the usual beats: down-on-his-luck boxer Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) struggles to pay the bills, is estranged from his ex-wife and daughter, meets the right girl, and starts to turn things around, and it all comes down to the Championship Fight.

Melissa Leo, as Alice

Directed by David O. Russell (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings), the film is handicapped by storylines involving Mickey’s brother Dicky (Christian Bale) and mother Alice (Melissa Leo). They’re his trainer and manager, respectively, and isolate him from the rest of the world, believing the business is full of thieves and con artists and only family can be trusted, but after a fight in Atlantic City goes badly it becomes clear to him that his family has done more harm than good.

We’re introduced to Mickey’s oddly blended family early on, with the help of documentarians from HBO, who are in town to make a film about Dicky. They ask questions for the audience like, “Who are these people?” Alice has had nine children with two husbands; Mickey is a product of her second marriage. They all live in Lowell, Massachusetts, an industrial town 30 miles northwest of Boston, and they suggest the characters from Good Will Hunting directed by Pee-Wee Herman. Years ago, there was a recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live in which Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch played an absurd pair of Bostonians who loved the Red Sox and spoke with exaggerated accents; the characters in this film make that sketch look like Mystic River.

There are scenes where Mickey’s seven sisters sit all in a row with their teased and permed hair and insult Mickey’s new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) by calling her an “MTV girl.” Charlene asks what that means at a family meeting, and one of the sisters helpfully clarifies: “Skank!” These white-trash grotesques don’t offend my political correctness as much as they simply don’t belong in this movie. Mickey is a straightforward dramatic character surrounded by cartoons, and they overwhelm us so early on that the film has a tough time getting on track. We can’t tell if the director is doing farce or playing for keeps.

Christian Bale, as Dicky

The peanut gallery is led by Melissa Leo’s battleaxe of a mother. I’ve greatly admired the actress in films like 21 Grams and Frozen River and most recently on the HBO drama series Treme, but I’ve never seen her as wildly off-key as she is in this role. They say sometimes that actors win the right Oscars for the wrong movies. If Leo prevails for this film, as it’s widely believed she might, boy will that be true. What was Russell aiming for when he directed this performance?

There’s a subplot involving Dicky’s worsening crack addiction, which is as familiar a trope as the underdog-boxer story. If it’s not as satisfying as it should be, that’s because Russell shows us things we’ve seen before and little we haven’t. Dicky was once a boxer too, washed up now, and still brags about his one achievement: knocking down Sugar Ray Leonard, who might actually have tripped. There are scenes of him smoking with his addict friends and scenes of him being arrested. We see him suffer withdrawal in a prison cell for about twenty seconds of screen time. It all leads to an eventual resolution that is too abrupt to feel genuinely earned. It feels like we’re hitting all the requisite stops along the way without any of the details that would make his story truly resonate.

The same can be said for Mickey. The Fighter seems like a very generic title, doesn’t it? It could be the name of any number of films on similar subjects, so what makes this one different from the others? I don’t think Russell finds an answer to that question.