Sunday, October 16, 2016

Three David O. Russell films: a review/survey

I didn't realize, until after having watched "The Fighter" last night, that I've seen several David O. Russell films: "Three Kings" (1999), "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012), "American Hustle" (2013) and "The Fighter" (2010). I haven't re-watched "Three Kings" anytime recently, so I won't be talking about that movie, although I should note that, stylistically speaking, it has very little in common with Russell's other dramedies, with their focus on dialogue-heavy tableaux involving messed-up teams and/or families. What follows will be three reviews of the other movies I mentioned. I'll be tackling these films in the order in which I saw them, not in the order in which they came out.

"Silver Linings Playbook"

"Silver Linings Playbook" stars Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Robert De Niro. This was the movie that netted Lawrence her Best Actress Oscar, and for good reason: her portrayal of Tiffany Maxwell, a recent widow who suffers from depression and other psychological problems, is a powerful one. On one level, the movie is about Bradley's Cooper's character, Pat Solitano, who is trying to get on his feet again after having spent time in a psychiatric ward for bipolar disorder. On another level, the film is a story about finding grace and new beginnings in the midst of human brokenness; in a comic vein, it's also about the healing power of watching football on TV.

Robert De Niro famously cried on Katie Couric's talk show as he hinted at his own real-life struggles with mental disorder; one of his children is autistic, and David O. Russell's son is bipolar. The personal investment of so many members of the cast and crew is visible in the production, which has a very good heart. Even though the movie treats mental illness with respect, I don't think "Playbook" is meant to be taken as a literal or factual examination of mental illness; to me, disease in this film is more like a metaphor, and whatever message the story is conveying is on the metaphorical level—and is, incidentally, very uplifting. Of the three David O. Russell movies I'm reviewing here, this is the one I liked the best.

"American Hustle"

"American Hustle" is a fictional take on the ABSCAM events of the 1970s. It stars Jennifer Lawrence (a Russell regular), Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Michael Peña. Robert De Niro also makes an appearance as—you guessed it—a mafioso. This is, at heart, another movie about deeply flawed people who try to make things work out—a recurring theme in Russell's work. Christian Bale plays inveterate scammer Irving Rosenfeld; Amy Adams is Sydney Prosser, Rosenfeld's lover, co-conspirator, and arguable brains of the operation. Irving's wife, Rosalyn (Lawrence), proves to be a major complication, especially after the US government gets wise to Irving's scamming and recruits him in a larger operation that balloons into an attempt to take down a mayor and several congressmen. Somewhere in the midst of all this, a fake sheik (Peña) is involved. Like "Silver Linings Playbook," "American Hustle" has its funny moments, but I didn't find this film nearly as enjoyable as "Playbook." The characters in "Hustle" have little to recommend them; they're constantly undoing themselves through hubris or an inability to keep secrets. Lawrence's character, in particular, is far less likable than the feisty-but-damaged woman she had played in "Playbook." If I'm going to watch a film about assholes pointlessly trying to undermine each other, I'd rather it be something like the Coen Brothers' "Burn After Reading."

"The Fighter"

I just watched "The Fighter" last night, so it's still quite fresh in my memory, and I'll be writing more extensively about it as a result. This movie stars Christian Bale (notice the overlap of stars in Russell's movies? Russell attracts high-powered talent) and Mark Wahlberg as Dicky Eklund and Micky Ward, two half-brothers from the small town of Lowell, Massachusetts. Dicky's claim to fame is that, as a professional boxer, he once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Since that late-70s knockdown, though, Dicky has become a crack addict. An HBO film crew is in town to do a documentary about Dicky, who thinks the completed work will be about his "comeback" (Dicky is 40). In fact, the HBO crew is there to do an exposé on how crack ruins lives. Dicky is Micky's trainer, but he's an unreliable trainer at best, given his addiction, and Micky ultimately abandons him. Micky and Dicky's mother Alice (Melissa Leo) is Micky's fight manager; Alice's henpecked husband (Jack McGee) is quietly encouraging of Micky's efforts to gain confidence and go pro. Micky meets Charlene (Amy Adams), who quickly understands that Micky's large, crazy family (Micky has six other siblings aside from Dicky) is holding him back. Battle lines are drawn as Micky must choose between blood ties or his own future.

"The Fighter" is based on the true story of Micky Ward, although many facts and events have been altered. Micky's second trainer in the movie is portrayed by Ward's real-life trainer, Mickey O'Keeffe who, along with being a boxing trainer, was a policeman. Mark Wahlberg, in prepping for the role, enlisted the aid of actual boxing champions like Manny Pacquiao. In the true-to-life vein, Christian Bale, as he did for his role in "The Machinist," once again lost insane amounts of weight to portray a twitchy crack addict. Bale also made a study of the real Micky Ward's speech patterns and body movements; the result of Bale's dedication was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Wahlberg apparently insisted on brutal realism for the boxing; he sustained several facial injuries during filming. At the same time, because Ward's major fights were all on video, the fight choreography was designed to be a—forgive the pun—blow-by-blow re-creation of the original fights.

I have trouble classifying "The Fighter" as a boxing movie, per se. True: there's a final bout to end the movie, as is found in all boxing/fighting movies, but to me, it's more fundamentally a family drama that happens to include boxing as a trope. Micky's family is a loud, screechy horror show: his lone brother (well, half-brother) is Dicky, and he's got six sisters, all of whom are catty, uneducated, and varying degrees of ugly (except for one sister). These sisters serve, at times, as a sort of retarded Greek chorus, dizzily pondering Micky's future or loudly bouncing around the idea that Micky's girlfriend Charlene is some sort of "MTV skank," even though they know next to nothing about her.

For me, "The Fighter" sits somewhere between "American Hustle" and "Silver Linings Playbook" in terms of likability. Micky's family is pretty damn horrible, but no one—not even crackhead Dicky—is out-and-out evil. There are no clear good guys and bad guys here; even Micky, despite his kindhearted nature, fails to step up at times when he should be courageous and principled. If you know Micky Ward's story—which I didn't until I read about it—you'll know that Ward drops Dicky Eklund as his trainer, then takes him back on (while keeping his other trainer, Mickey O'Keeffe), then goes on to win a series of professional bouts, cementing his status as the welterweight champion of the world. HBO did its documentary on Dicky, but in the end, Dicky cleaned up and got the last laugh.

I'm sorely tempted to compare "The Fighter" to "Warrior" (reviewed here), another movie about two brothers, troubled families, addiction, and combat sports. The two films share many of the same themes, but the stories' planning and execution are so utterly different that a true comparison is, I think, impossible. "Warrior" is intense and gripping; its moral perspective is clearer, maybe less subtle than the complicated picture we get in "The Fighter." "Warrior" also has a more explicit focus on fighting, whereas "The Fighter," despite its title, is more about what happens outside of the ring than inside of it. As a family drama that is mostly depressing but eventually encouraging, I think "The Fighter" works quite well; as a boxing movie, though, I think it's a bit flabby.

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