Oscar Catch-Up Round Two
The Kids Are All Right
I love two big Hollywood actresses agreeing to do this movie. Ten years ago people would have been all scandalized or impressed that they spend some of that time kissing and hugging on each other. Now we’re all pretty comfortable with The Gay (at least on our movie screens) and that’s not been an issue for this movie. What was really fearless of these two women—Annette Bening and Julianne Moore—was for them to appear onscreen messy-haired and unmakeupped for the duration. This is not one of these Nicole Kidman prosthetic nose deals. These women showed their actual faces, how they actually look. And they are lovely, lovely women, who happen to be old enough to convincingly play the mothers of teenagers, to be part of a couple that’s been together for the better part of two decades. And OK with it.
They are a fun couple, and their lives are worth stepping into for two hours. I love Bening’s character’s rant in the restaurant about how everybody is so compulsively green and granola-eating. That’s how I feel every time I step into a Whole Foods. Bening’s character, Nic, was my anchor in the movie. She was probably everybody’s. She just wanted to do her job, raise her kids, love her wife, and not have to go through the motions of embracing this weird guy—the Sperm Donor—who wants to step in. But she makes valiant efforts because she loves her kids and it seems important to them. And then it’s important to her wife, Jules (Moore), because the guy can get her business up and running. And Nic makes valiant efforts there, too. And she is unexpectedly bruised and burned for her efforts, and Bening does a beautiful job of crumbling under the duress and then holding the pieces together.
One problem with the movie is that it seemed to want me to care more about the kids than I could manage. They had their own plotlines—the daughter had a platonic guy friend she was too afraid to kiss, and the son had fallen under the influence of his really ugly best friend. These scenes were routinely uninteresting.
Jump ahead for The Fighter, True Grit, and a spoilery finish to my review of The Kids Are All Right
Both kids also both had scenes where they began to build their own personal relationships with Mark Ruffalo’s character, Paul, the Sperm Donor. This was more interesting. Then it ended up meaning less than nothing. A lot of reviews complained about the sort of unceremonious dumping of Paul at the end. Let me add to that chorus. I don’t think it was narratively problematic—the family closed ranks on him, plain and simple. And I think it served the underlying message of the movie which is that sperm + egg does not equal family. This is a hugely important message for a movie about a lesbian couple and their kids. It’s a political message, within the highly politicized sphere of gay relationships, gay marriage, and gay parenthood. Paul was the biological father of both of the children, genetically close enough to them that he had managed even to pass on certain facial expressions of his to them, at least according to Jules. But he wasn’t their dad, he didn’t care enough about them to not try to destroy their family unit by whisking Jules away for some presumptive Grand Romance. The moms saved the family through their efforts to forgive and forget for each other.
But, it would have been nice to get some closure on him, too, at least something other than him walking sadly away from the house. He was a major character for the majority of the movie. How is he going to function now that he’s been through this mess? Did he learn anything? Or is the point of his character, that he doesn’t learn? I think Mark Ruffalo, the thoughtful and engaging actor, could answer that question; I even think there might be footage on the cutting room floor answering that question. So why don’t we get to see it? Also, he clearly had a good rapport with the kids. So he didn’t consider their feelings when pursuing Jules. We don’t need to write him off as unteachable, do we? He was also incredibly immature, whatever his age. The movie established that through multiple channels (his relationship with women, his lack of commitment to his career, etc.). He could certainly have grown to prize his relationship with the kids above some fantastical soul mate.
Expected Oscar recognition: Mark Ruffalo is nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but I’ve already described why his role, through no fault of his own, doesn’t work. He’ll get passed by. Still, I love him lots. Keep working, Ruffalo!
Julianne Moore gives one great speech at the end of the movie, but for the most part I thought she was only OK. Her character is sort of pitch-perfect for that kind of person, the wavy-gravy wanderer “this year I’m a gardener!” kind of person. But she doesn’t feel as cohesive a part of the family as the rest of them do. She sort of seems dropped into the family; I didn’t get any sense of history from her. Annette Bening, on the other hand, looks like she could be the mother of those kids, she looks like she’s been wearily dragging on in a marriage with an unreliable person for years (…Warren Beatty… <cough>). I think that’s why Bening got nominated and Moore didn’t. But that element also might have been deliberate—Moore is the one whose character’s commitment to the family is tested—in which case it kind of sucks for Moore, but it’s not like she hasn’t had her nominations.
Anyway, Bening is awesome—I love her spiky hair and hipster glasses and slouchy messenger bag (also, have you seen the writer-director of the movie, Lisa Cholodenko? That’s totally who Bening got her lesbian styling tips from). I love her strident, brook-no-BS attitude, I love her wine-guzzling. I still love the restaurant rant. I love her stoic pain and the maturity and generosity of her forgiveness. It’s an amazing performance. Whether she can trounce the little ballerina on Oscar night remains to be seen.
I found this movie surprisingly enjoyable. I am not a sports movie person; I especially dislike boxing, and have detailed why here. But the dirty little secret of The Fighter is that it is not really a sports movie—it’s a movie about family dynamics, in which the major source of family conflict is a sport. And I LOOOOOOVE family conflict movies.
The story, which is “true” (that is to say, movie-true), is about a pair of working class brothers, one of whom was once a great boxer (at least great enough to have had a lightning strike of a knockout in a very high profile fight) and one of whom could be. Christian Bale is the older brother, Dicky, a washout who is hopelessly drug addicted, but still attempting to coach his younger brother, Micky, played by Mark Wahlberg. Their brashy-trashy mother, played by Melissa Leo, acts as Micky’s manager, but she is forever on Dicky’s side. If someone suggests that a completely unreliable addict is not a great candidate for a coach, she objects. Loudly, obnoxiously, and occasionally with her fists. This movie has lots of equal opportunity brawling: the women involved (and there are a LOT—Micky and Dicky have, I think, five sisters who act as sort of a poufy-haired Greek chorus) are just as likely to try to solve a problem with a sock to the jaw as any of the men.
The movie is about Micky trying to climb up out of the mire of his family’s insanity and unrealistic expectations; to try to get in touch with his own talents, and what he wants. There’s a scene early on where the collective bad decision making of his mother and his brother results in a brutal loss for Micky in the ring; riding back home from Atlantic City in the limo, Dicky and Ma drone on and on about what a fluke it was and how much they really know, and in a medium shot, the silent Micky just barely rolls his eyes. He clearly cannot wait to get out of the car and away from these delusional nitwits. But when he has real opportunities that will take him away from their mismanagement, he agonizes over whether he should take them.
The movie has enough small moments like that roll of the eyes to really make the characters feel lived-in and real. The acting by Bale and Leo is big, for sure, but it works with the kinds of characters they are. They have Big Personalities. We all know those people. Wahlberg keeps the movie balanced by being super subtle. He gets accused of not doing anything, which is inaccurate. See the roll of the eyes; see the sudden outburst of personal charm when he picks up Amy Adams’s character in a bar. He is quiet and calm with his family because that’s the kind of existence he wants—“The Fighter” is an ironic title because this boxer actually avoids conflict. He would rather everybody just get along. (Some people, I think, have trouble reconciling the sort of goofy “I’m tough, from the streets” attitude Wahlberg walks around with when he’s being himself. SNL made memorable fun of it. But he can be a strong actor in the right role, which is what he’s got here.)
What’s really funny is that the end credits roll over footage of the real Micky and Dicky, which I think should silence anyone who thinks Bale was overreaching. Even though both are on the wrong side of middle age by now, and don’t too closely resemble their Hollywood counterparts, it is IMMEDIATELY apparent which one is which. Real Micky sits quietly, watching Real Dicky, who chatters away to the camera, overzealously greets people as they walk in, throws himself on the counter of the diner where they are sitting. He’s like a five-year-old with ADHD. And when Real Micky finally gets a word in, it’s to comment good-naturedly on Dicky’s antics.
My favorite moment of the movie proper was when Micky and Dicky walk into the arena for the climactic fight. Their chosen entrance music is hair-band anthem “Here I Go Again,” and as they walk the aisles up to the ring, both guys whisper along with the lyrics of the song. “Going down the only road I’ve ever known… I made up my mind…ain’t wasting no more time…” The song is perfect for the setting and the time period, but it’s also so thematically important for both men. Every character in every sports movie reaches that “do or die” moment just before The Big Game. It’s to The Fighter’s credit that it managed to fit that moment so quietly and so movingly into the narrative.
Expected Oscar recognition: For Best Picture, it’s unlikely. I’ve heard people make the comparison to Raging Bull which—and I didn’t even like Raging Bull—isn’t warranted. It’s not the same kind of artistry. I like David O. Russell’s work very much (Three Kings is maybe the best war movie of the last twenty years), but The Fighter’s just not super inventive in any obvious way. It’s is much more on par with Rocky, which did win an Academy Award but most likely would not have in a year this good. (Or maybe would not have if there had already been a Rocky, if you know what I mean.)
Bale is the favorite for Best Supporting Actor. When he won his Golden Globe for this role, he was exceedingly generous and specific with his praise for his co-star Wahlberg.
Really gotta give a shout–out to Mark because he drove this whole movie, and you can only give a loud performance like the one I gave when you have a quiet anchor and um, a stoic character, and I’ve played that one many times, and it never gets any notice; the HFPA have nominated Mark for tonight so that’s fantastic, but thank you buddy, kudos to you for that, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten away with it.
Very classy acknowledgement, and also I’m just really glad that Bale knows that. And it’s too bad for Wahlberg that his work was too close to the chest for anyone to really notice it after he lost the Globe. And say hi to your mother for me.
Then there’s Best Supporting Actress. Word on the Internet lately is that Melissa Leo is self-promoting herself right out of an Oscar. She’s buying up ad space and stuff basically saying “Vote for me! Vote for me!” and it’s not needed, because she was the front-runner anyway, coming out of the Golden Globes. She’s been so good in really under-the-radar things for many years (OK, I only know her from Frozen River, but other people tell me she’s been so good for so many years) that I think her win would bring a great deal of satisfaction to the industry. But she is kind of ruining it. I also really wish she was campaigning for a role where she hadn’t had to wear such a horrible wig, but then I guess she couldn’t really help what kind of headsuit the real-life mother of Dicky and Micky was wearing back in ’93 or whenever.
Amy Adams, as Micky’s girlfriend, is good, better than we all thought she would be at playing a kind of rough-and-tumble blue collar girl. She won’t overtake Leo, though, even if Oscar voters go another way—if Leo’s lost it, they’ll go to another movie, not shame her by giving the award to a costar with a more minor role. That’s just protocol.
I love love love the Coen brothers. Their movies combine absurd humor with high drama, are beautiful to look at, insanely quotable, and almost always something you’ve never quite seen before. Even in this case, where the movie is literally something you’ve seen before (a remake of a 1969 western starring the paragon of westerns, John Wayne), the movie has got its own Coenesque tone. It’s not going to compete with Fargo or No Country for Old Men in the Coen’s catalogue, but for two hours of solid entertainment it does its job.
There’s a little girl called Mattie Ross who is hunting down a hired man of her father’s who, amid a confused scuffle, killed him and ran off into the night. She has determined to hire the nastiest bounty hunter she can find, because she is after vengeance. She hires a mean, old, one-eyed drunk called Rooster Cogburn who tries, soon enough, to ditch her, and finds her surprisingly unditchable. A Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon falls into and out of the story various times, complicating and contributing where he can. Stakes are raised when it becomes apparent that the hired man has fallen in with a notorious gang. There is more than one classic western showdown. The roles that Mattie, Cogburn, and the Texas Ranger play in each others’ pursuits shift and evolve. It all works together like clockwork, which makes it first-rate Hollywood product. But, like The King’s Speech, it all feels a bit familiar.
The best and most unusual aspect of the movie is the dialogue. The characters have this way of speaking which is probably lifted wholesale from the novel on which the movie is based: unexpectedly rich vocabulary, everything they say heightened and baroque. It really won me over when Mattie, trying to rouse the hungover Cogburn from his bed, tells him that stories of his great efficiency at nabbing outlaws has been “braggadocio.” Any use of the word braggadocio is a win for me. My other favorite line was “He has abandoned me to a congress of louts!” A congress of louts.
It’s incredibly funny, too. Our real introduction to Mattie comes when she sits down across from a dealer of horses and goes about reversing the sale her father had originally come to town to negotiate. She talks circles around this older man, refusing to be patronized to or intimidated or threatened, until finally he gives her what she wants just to get her out of his office. And then she asks for more. The scene must go on for fifteen minutes of “yes” “no” “YES” “NO” and it’s hilarious at every moment. Later, en route with Cogburn, they discover the body of a man hung very high from a tree. Mattie climbs to see if it’s her man, betrayed by the gang he’s joined. She makes it most of the way up the tree and yells down that it’s not him. Cogburn yells back that she should keep climbing and let the body down. She asks why. Cogburn says casually, “I might know him.” Whether he means the man might have a bounty on his head, or whether he might be one of Cogburn’s saloonmates, or whether Cogburn is just seized with idle curiosity, we don’t know. “I might know him.” Imagine driving past a car wreck and your friend in the passenger seat says, “Stop, I might know him.” I don’t know, to me that’s hilarious.
Expected Oscar recognition: As I enthused above, I loved the dialogue in this movie and I would love to see it honored with Adapted Screenplay. Against The Social Network, unfortunately, it has no shot. (Check back later in the week to hear my complaints about The Social Network’s script.)
Jeff Bridges is perfect in the lead role—crusty, brutal, funny—and enough of his own man not to stand in the shadow of John Wayne. (Who had better roles than Rooster Cogburn anyway, whether or not he won an Oscar for this role.) But Bridges gave the performance that was expected of him—the one we all envisioned when we heard he’d been cast in a remake of True Grit, I imagine—plus he won Best Actor last year. He’ll show up, he’ll probably charmingly present in another category, and when Best Actor is announced he will most likely remain charmingly seated.
Hailee Steinfeld is an interesting case; everyone protested when it was announced that she’d been submitted in the Supporting category as opposed to the Lead, when Mattie Ross is clearly the main character and the driving force behind True Grit. She is in nearly every scene. Presumably, the producers and / or her personal management (whoever is behind that choice) thought she had a better shot in Supporting, and in the year of Portman versus Bening, she does.
But how good are her chances? Leo may be on a downswing, and if so, who is the next in line? Not Adams; I discussed the Leo-Adams relationship above. The other three nominees are Steinfeld, Jacki Weaver for Animal Kingdom, and Helena Bonham Carter for The King’s Speech. Bonham Carter would be a fairly safe choice—dignified British picture, dignified, likeable role. The fact that she may show up dressed like a Gothic marionette (at least, we hope she will) will not factor. Remember what Angelina Jolie wore the year she won? Jacki Weaver would be a great “Who in the what now?” kind of win, which is definitely what the Supporting category is there for. It’s easy to dismiss someone Steinfeld’s age, assuming the Academy will say “good for her, but she’ll have plenty of opportunities later.” But then there is Tatum O’Neal, there is Anna Paquin. Supporting categories can really, truly be anybody’s game.
Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
Travels With Charley: In Search of America, John Steinbeck
The Little Friend, Donna Tartt
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Alias, Season 5
Bosch, Season 2
Catastrophe, Season 2
Downton Abbey, Season 5
Silicon Valley, Season 3
The Last Man on Earth, Season 2
Recently Seen / Re-Seen
Shut Up and Sing (2006)
Things We Lost in the Fire (2007)
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Jurassic Park (1993)
The Runaways (2010)
Love and Mercy (2014)