Two films earning significant buzz, “Black Swan” and “The Fighter,” are rather similar in their subject matter (both follow a devoted-but-troubled athlete and the individual struggles to make it to the top of their respective fields), their critical reception (both are at 88% at Rotten Tomatoes) and at one point both shared the same director, Darren Aronofsky.
But they both take decidedly different paths to tell their tale, and only one does so effectively.
It has been garnering steam at the 11th hour for awards consideration, but I cannot help but wonder if those lavishing praise on “Black Swan” will wake up in 2011 with a heavy hangover brought about by the film’s overindulgence.
“Showgirls” in a tutu, “Black Swan” is an over-the-top mess of a movie that makes up its own rules as it goes along. Directed by the undeniably talented Darren Aronofsky (the near-perfect “Requiem for a Dream” and the above-average “The Wrestler”) allows excess to undermine any carefully crafted vision he may have tried to create of the high-pressure world of professional ballet.
Natalie Portman is Nina, the prima ballerina who just landed the lead of a “reimagining” of “Swan Lake.” It’s an honor that quickly weighs heavily on her dainty, damaged shoulders. Still living under the overprotective guidance of her mommy (played by Barbara Hershey), Nina is introduced as quite the emotionally fragile flower. Her brow persistently furrowed, she often returns home to her arrested-development domicile, which is adorned with all the accouterments of a 12-year-old.
Adding to the stress of her life is a demanding director (played with haughty condescension by Vincent Casseil) and a more carefree fellow ingenue (played by Mila Kunis) who may-or-may-not-be muscling for the role. They become BBFFs (Best Ballerina Friends Forever), but Nina is suspicious of her every move.
The central issue is that our lead is so imbalanced, we have no idea what to believe.
Is her mother, a failed ballerina herself, a suffocating control freak, or a concerned parent who realizes just how breakable her little girl is? Aronofsky never really reveals this, and with the shattered prism of our protagonist’s view, it’s impossible to tell what is reality in this film’s world. Since Nina’s mind is obviously splintered, we have almost no reliable way to categorize the scenes that take place before us.
I’m all for a good rug pulling (“Fight Club” remains one of my top five films of all time), but Aronofsky never establishes the film’s terra firma, so we are left to just soak in this rather obvious retelling of the dance that is featured. It ultimately feels like one of those narrative cheats in which everything is a dream sequence, therefore nothing need be rationalized. But like dreams, when they are not your own, hearing someone else describe theirs in detail can be a rather slow, confounding experience.
The film that Aronofsky dropped out of for “Black Swan” happens to be another awards contender, “The Fighter.”
Picking up the reins is a director known for his pugilistic tendencies behind the camera, David O. Russell (“I Heart Huckabee’s,” “Three Kings”). He takes the life of blue-collar boxer Micky Ward and manages to create a film of unexpected warmth, drama and humor from the most unexpected places. He also allows Christian Bale and Melissa Leo to deliver some of the year’s best performances.
Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, is a working-class Massachusetts schlub, trying desperately to make something of his meager life with a druggie brother, a domineering mother/manager and a house full of clucking middle-aged sisters who have failed to cut the apron strings.
Bale plays Dicky Eklund, Micky’s older half-brother who exceeded the expiration date on his own boxing career, and has since sought solace at the losing end of a crack pipe. Trust me when I say you will completely forget this is the same man that played “Batman.” The actor has dramatically transformed before, but here it feels more than just a drop in weight and a bad haircut. He is downright disturbing as a literal shell of a man and is sadly mesmerizing.
And while Dicky is just a colossal screw-up, Micky’s mom, Alice (played by Melissa Leo), is a peroxide-soaked narcissistic nightmare. Wielding guilt like a weapon, she is able to whip her family into a frenzy while sitting back and complaining about the commotion. Leo loses herself in a role that could have easily gone far over the top into caricature.
Add to this solid performances by Wahlberg and Amy Adams as his equally scrappy ladylove, and you have a cast that creates electricity far outside the ring. In fact, “The Fighter” is at its strongest when its focus is not on the sport itself (all shot in that cheap, 90s-video style that marked many HBO broadcasts), but on the familial dynamics that occur in Micky’s life.
And throughout all the domestic punches thrown, its the film’s humor that is most surprising. Culled from moments that are raw and riotous, “The Fighter” uses boxing as its anchor, but lands more blows when we are spending time with its characters after the bell rings.