It is time to talk about “The Fighter.” Why is it time? Seven Academy Award nominations can be reason enough. That’s a respectable number. Maybe even lucky. That puts “The Fighter” just shy of “Inception” and “The Social Network” (eight each) and, if not quite in the same league as “True Grit” and “The King’s Speech” (10 and 12 respectively), at least a step above “127 Hours” (six) and “Black Swan” (five). And at no time will these otherwise arbitrary statistics matter as much as they do right now, with anticipation building and just another couple of weekends to go before the big show. There are worse ways to celebrate the muscle-sport and marketing blitz of the Oscars than with an officially venerated movie about boxing and broken family.
Mark Wahlberg (not nominated, awkwardly) produces and stars in the true story of Massachusetts pugilist “Irish” Micky Ward, a working-class junior welterweight who went pro in the ’80s with hit-and-miss help from his drug-addled half-brother Dicky Eklund — played here with riveting, movie-stealing immediacy by Christian Bale (nominated, deservedly). The truth is that director David O. Russell (nominated) and his team of writers (Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington and Scott Silver, sharing a nomination and a complex arrangement of credits) don’t have much boxing-movie innovation to offer, but they know the formula and lay it on extra thick: Look, it’s a double training montage, with two underdogs trying comebacks simultaneously!
What we learn from this is that times may change, but the award-baiting trope of adversity overcome is tried and true — whether it’s cutting off your own arm to get out of a tight spot; or hiring a grizzled alcoholic marshal to track down your dad’s killer; or learning how to deliver a speech to a war-spooked fading empire without stuttering; or, yes, putting down the crack pipe to train your bother to overcome his own adversity in the boxing ring.
It was easy to guess that Melissa Leo also would get nominated for her turn as Micky and Dicky’s rather ruthless, favorite-playing mother (unstable matriarchs also tend to please the Academy, as we see in Jacki Weaver’s nomination for “Animal Kingdom,” and in the occasional blogosphere outrage over Barbara Hershey’s non-nomination for “Black Swan”), but that shouldn’t overshadow Jack McGee’s truer, less showy and barely noticed performance as Leo’s wearied spouse.
With coherence covertly imposed by nominee editor Pamela Martin, the subtle details of unruly family dynamics are what “The Fighter” does best. Other appealing intangibles include Russell and Bale both being Internet-famous for on-set temper tantrums (during other films), and the pretty-boy beefball Wahlberg seeming so at home among the unlovely faces and voices of the Massachusetts hoi polloi – the “local cullah.” The movie’s most thrilling fight might just be the one where Micky’s bartender-cutie girlfriend (Amy Adams, nominated!) throws down with his seven trashy sisters all at once.