Supporting characters spice up biopic of turbulent lives of two boxing brothers
The Fighter is “based on a true story,” and part of the trouble with it is that it never quite gets its truths entirely in synch with its realities. It’s got a flavorsome assortment of discordant, half-baked realities on display—a fantasy-league boxing saga, a dysfunctional family’s tragicomic melodrama, a slice of working-class life (in Lowell, Mass.), a bizarre episode of drugs and crime, a long overdue rite of passage for the title character, a tale of two rather mismatched brothers who are nevertheless rather blindly devoted to each other. With Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg playing the two brothers, this movie has no lack of iconic star power, but the two lead performances don’t mesh nearly as much as the film really needs. The characterizations suffer as a result, and the most significantly focused acting in the film is left to others.
Wahlberg is generically hunky in the title role, and Bale is a nonstop freak show of gimpy tics, leers and twitches. These two dominate the screen, but the most focused and coherent performances turn up in a key pair of supporting roles—Melissa Leo as the brothers’ swaggeringly delusional mother and, best of all, Amy Adams as Micky’s smart, brassy girlfriend.
Wahlberg’s Micky Ward is supposed to be the dogged brawler who is still strangely deferential to the wildly erratic older brother (Bale) who is also his trainer. Brother Dicky is so extravagantly out of control that it’s very hard to believe that even the most gullible and starstruck of younger brothers would so eagerly follow his lead for so long. The self-assurance and wary intelligence that Wahlberg brings to the role are right for Micky’s heroic side, but not very much at all for the scrappy pug who has delayed his entrance into full adulthood for so long.
The brief view we get of the real-life brothers during the closing credits suggests that the filmmakers have been true to the outlines of both men’s characters, but that the casting choices, perhaps inevitably, have overblown the onscreen characterizations of both. The guys we glimpse during the credits seem much more self-effacing and ordinary than their movie avatars, even though there’s no mistaking which is Micky and which is Dicky.
Mickey’s triumph ends up feeling like a conventional, old-time boxing fantasy, and that works well enough as visceral entertainment. But the most interesting aspects of the story have to do with the circumstances from which Micky and his brother briefly arose—the brutal poverty of Lowell and especially the large chaotic family that is suffocating him at the same time that it prods him onward.
Adams’ Charlene is central to whatever emotional honesty the film can salvage from its various dramatic stews. She is the film’s lucid counterforce to Dicky’s irresponsibility and to Leo’s imperious bimbo of a matriarch and the six daughters who line up behind her like a posse of slack-jawed harpies.