The Movie Club

David O. Russell Is Wasting His Crazy Talent on Movies Like The Fighter.
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 4 2011 5:05 PM

The Movie Club

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Still from The Fighter. Click image to expand.
Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in The Fighter 

Dear Movie Club, I love making lists. God, I love it so much.

Dan Kois Dan Kois

Dan Kois is Slate's culture editor and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.

Long before I actually got paid to write about culture, I made year-end lists. In some dusty archive is preserved, to my horror I'm sure, the list I made for Whitefish Bay High School's Tower Times of the 10 best albums of 1991, which consisted of the 10 albums I'd been able to afford to purchase in 1991. And on my computer's hard drive, I have movie lists dating back to when I was typing them on a Mac that looked like the Banana Junior 6000.

Making a list seemed to me to stand as the ultimate perk of being a critic: the chance to weigh in, authoritatively, on the canon, to declare deserving movies masterpieces and demote the frauds to also-ran status, in one itemized flourish. Much later, I realized that the real pleasures of writing about movies were in, as Matt notes, the telescope and the microscope. But that doesn't mean I stopped loving lists.

What I'm saying here is that it was a piece of cake to round up my Nos. 11-20. (If anyone wants to know what No. 31 was in, like, 2000, let me know.) The movies that hovered at the edge of my top 10 this year were And Everything Is Going Fine, Animal Kingdom, Easy A, Four Lions, Harry Potter 7A, How Do You Know, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Night Catches Us, and Winter's Bone. My beloved "No. 11," in Karina's coinage, is Tanya Hamilton's debut Night Catches Us, an old-fashioned indie about ex-Black Panthers in Philly—"old-fashioned" in that it's a talky, nicely shot drama about people without much money. Its box office is dismal despite the kind of thoughtful praise in the Times that used to guarantee some heat; despite its terrific cast (Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Wendell Pierce); despite a bangin' soundtrack by the Roots, for goodness sakes.

I agree with Karina about How Do You Know, whose laughable title—might as well call it How Could You Remember—certainly didn't help its commercial prospects. (Although it's already made literally 500 times as much as Night Catches Us.) And like Karina, I thought Rudd's performance was a major achievement, helped along by James Brooks' inspired decision to give his leading man at least as many long, dewy close-ups as Her Reeseness. I can't think of that many actors who could hold the camera so securely as Rudd; he's alive with feeling in this movie. All the characters, in fact, have exquisitely well-thought-out emotional trajectories—ones that might not be the same as mine or yours, but which are recognizably human nonetheless. (It also features an all-time great romcom best-friend performance from Kathryn Hahn, who in this movie, happily, is the best friend of the guy, not the girl, and never once is forced to pine for him from afar. She has a Prince Charming of her own.)

Regarding Somewhere, all I can say is: Dana, you say "I get it," but YOU DON'T GET IT. When he is driving the car around in circles it is because also his LIFE is going around in CIRCLES, like it is DIRECTIONLESS. BrrrAAAAAAAHHHHHMMMMM!!!! 

Before I sign off, I want to ask you guys about The Fighter. It appears on none of our top 10 lists, although Matt's Twitter feed suggests he just saw it (and really liked it.) Along with The King's Speech, though, it's the December prestige film that seems to be ascending in the cultural firmament, rapturously received by critics and civilians alike.

But did you guys think it just seemed really … square? Matt, I know it's not a "sports movie" per se, but that didn't stop me from sighing with exasperation when the film followed a well-acted and sharply written family showdown with, like, a straight-up training montage. And while I can't deny the power of the catharsis that the Eklunds undergo, my pleasure was tempered by grim anticipation, knowing now I'd have to watch to see if Micky Ward won the WBU championship. I don't give a shit whether Micky Ward won the WBU championship, and if I did, I would already know whether Micky Ward won the WBU championship. I want the movie to reach an emotional climax, not a 10-minute boxing climax. (Yes, I know, to the Eklunds the boxing match is an emotional climax, but not to me.)

And sure, David O. Russell did a terrific job directing The Fighter. But is this really the kind of movie we want our David O. Russells directing? Any competent welterweight could punch his way through this story, but Russell is some kind of mad MMA genius. His anarchic energy seems to have been restricted, in The Fighter, to picking out patterns for Christian Bale's Zubaz. I don't mind back-to-basics filmmaking, when fiendishly inventive filmmaking machines cleanse their palates; True Grit and Summer Hours are great, for example. But David O. Russell has made five films in 16 years! He doesn't have time to waste by making better versions of Clint Eastwood movies!

Yes, yes, Russell probably needed just this kind of movie to maintain his viability after the collapse of Nailed—his awesome-sounding, abandoned, likely never-to-be-released comedy about Jessica Biel getting shot in the head with a nail gun, becoming a nymphomaniac, and going to Washington with an anal-prolapse-suffering Tracy Morgan to fight for health care reform. (I know!) After all, Darren Aronofsky needed to make the meat-and-potatoes The Wrestler after the expensive, crazypants souffle The Fountain. Here's hoping that after The Fighter garners him all due acclaim, Russell continues following Aronofsky's lead and makes something as nutty as Black Swan. I Heart Huckabees Too, anyone?

Yours in Zubaz,
Dan

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