Consider it my own form of seasonal affective disorder. Near the end of each year and into the beginning of the next, we’re flooded with the sort of loud, mannered, elaborate performances that earn attention from awards shows. Call them Oscaroles.
Colin Firth’s expertly calibrated stammering in The King’s Speech. Ryan Gosling’s boozy brooding in Blue Valentine. Natalie Portman’s vein-popping mental breakdown in Black Swan. These are all BIG performances, relying on exaggerated physical attributes or emotional outbursts (often both). Mind you, I’m not saying they’re bad performances – well, OK, Gosling’s was – but when they come in waves this time of year, they can come across as overwrought at best, calculated at worst.
The Fighter is an Oscarole screaming match, as if the cast was told that the loudest would go home with the Academy Award. It’s telling that the title role – that of fledgling boxer Micky Ward, played with expert understatement by Mark Wahlberg – is the one that’s been talked about the least by Oscar prognosticators. Instead, all of the speculation (and early awards) have gone to the screamers in the cast: Christian Bale as Micky’s squirming, strung-out brother; Melissa Leo as his gum-smacking, big-haired mother; Amy Adams as his foul-mouthed, cat-fighting girlfriend. All Wahlberg does is stand quietly in the corner, delivering the most authentic, nuanced performance in the film.
As Oscar bait, The Fighter is admirable enough. While the overall structure is conventional – a training montage follows Micky as he works his way up to the big fight – director David O. Russell also grounds the movie (which is based on fact) in a real time and place: the tight-knit, working-class town of Lowell, Mass. Micky’s family are local celebrities, of sorts, considering step-brother Dicky (Bale) once knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Hobbled by a crack addiction, Dicky now chases former glory as the (largely ineffectual) trainer for Micky, a deeply dysfunctional arrangement that is enabled by the brothers’ fierce mother (Leo).
As Micky tries to distance himself from his family without abandoning them, The Fighter touches on the way family relationships may be the most complex in the human experience. Yet in the end, that’s not the movie’s reason for being. The Fighter exists to capture Micky’s title win (don’t act like I’m giving anything away) and to give a talented cast a chance to go for broke. And so the accents are thick, the fights (both professional and familial) are brutal and the hair is gargantuan. Ding! Let the Oscar bout begin.