You can see The Fighter struggling to be significant, to be more than just an interesting tale well told.
For Micky Ward, it was never really about the fights. For the noted Irish welterweight, the time in the ring was his own - his moment, his meaning, his motivation. Everything else was just noise: the buzz of a dysfunctional family still living in the fading limelight of his harried half-brother Dickie Ecklund; the clannish mentality that fostered an "us vs. them" reaction to almost everything; the disappointment at being considered a mere "stepping stone" for other boxers; the knowledge that age and ability were making his shot at success harder and harder to come by. Yet during one memorable stretch in the mid '90s Ward, on a professional and personal comeback, got a chance to fight for the title. It was only then that he could prove he was more than just his sibling's sensible shadow.
In David O. Russell's riveting (if routine) new drama The Fighter, Mark Wahlberg is the understate Ward, a good guy trapped in a living Hell of familial frustration. While his hard living, chain-smoking mother Alice (Melissa Leo) frets over his half-sisters and argues for the fairness of the game, she dotes on Dickie (a revelatory Christian Bale) in all his faded glory. There is an intriguing dichotomy between the two brothers. Micky was never really famous. He just got in the ring and did his job. Dickie, on the other hand, was infamous, going the distance with Sugar Ray Leonard during a monumental 1978 bout (in which he knocked the noted champion down) and earning the neighborhood nickname "The Pride of Lowell". Even with a crack habit slowly destroying his purpose, he pumps up his brother, determined to see him make good while plotting his own middle aged return.
There is more to The Fighter than rivalries and everyday Massachusetts realities. Russell, whose had his own creative struggles as of late, breathes new life into his lagging career by treating the material with utmost respect. There is no artsy obviousness here, no attempt to manipulate the facts to fit a weird internal vision. Instead, with music and images, performance and pacing, Russell lures us into Ward's world and lets every aspect demand the attention (and the potential ridicule) it deserves. One of the best bits involves the Ecklund Sisters, a gang of mall haired harpies who curse and complain like a coven of discontented witches. Whenever something threatens their mother or Dickie, they file in like a lynch mob ready to remedy the situation with brassy, braless chutzpah.
Another compelling element is the mingling of real and fictional life. Dickie is being filmed for part of an HBO special (he thinks it's about boxing) and for everyone in the clan it's a big, big deal. When they suddenly discover that the focus is not on their relative's name and notoriety, but on his deadening downward spiral into addiction, the entire temperament of the Ecklunds changes. The sequence where they see the film for the first time (we've watched the HBO crew film and interview everyone), is a devastating moment, filled with truths so telling that hardly anyone can watch it. Even Micky, a devoted supporter of his bro, is mortified by the open contempt Dickie has for everything his talent and the sport supplied.
Also astonishing are the specific females involved. Between Bale and Walhberg lies a terrifying Ms. Leo, looking like trash and acting in angry acknowledgment of same. She's not so much a matriarch as a vulture, swooping down on unsuspecting individuals and destroying them with her nicotine stained claws. She's the epitome of a failed moral compass, her many children claiming a couple of different paternities during her "active" days. When required to turn on the affection, she can. But with Alice, there is more than just mere love. There's a craving for something additional that makes her attentions all the more meaningful - and menacing.
On the other side of the coin is confused college drop-out Charlene Fleming. As essayed by Amy Adams, this cat-called "MTV girl", a combination of education and misplaced youth, drives Micky to finally stand up for himself, a position he rarely if ever takes. Even better, Adams adds a sense of purpose to the film. For the most part, The Fighter finds it acceptable to wander around somewhat aimlessly, hitting the highlights of Ward's rise, but never really settling into a significant rhythm. When Charlene makes her new man defend himself in front of the sisters, it's a stand-off that saves the movie from itself. It gives The Fighter a breath of fresh narrative air, pushing it toward Micky's decision to return to the ring and make things right.
Yet for some unmanageable reason, The Fighter can't find the same sensational grace notes as Darren Aronofsky's similarly themed The Wrestler. Indeed, while walking along the same corridors of triumph and despair, it just doesn't have a competing emotional bite. Part of the problem is the bifurcated nature of the story. The first hour is almost all Dickie, from his jokey jive talking to his eventual run in with the law. The minute he lands in prison, Micky must take over, but because the film has been treating him as an interloper in his own story, he's not prepared to carry the weight. It takes a while - and Charlene's help - before things settle back down and start pumping. Once we get to the big title fight, the film has found its legs again, and we naturally get caught up in the inherent drama within any competition.
Still, you can see The Fighter struggling to be significant, to be more than just an interesting tale well told. Russell isn't flying free and uneasy like he did with I Heart Huckabees or Three Kings. Instead, he is locked into a specific genre and just can't seem to sway from said mandates. His cast is more than capable (look for more than one of them on Year End lists) and he handles the local color nuances of this Boston burg with aplomb. But just like Ward's career, there's not a lot of gravitas to The Fighter. It's just a nice bit of urban legendry, nothing more or less.