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Thursday, January 29, 2015

January 29, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On the interesting results when an unconventional filmmaker works in a conventional genre.
Like any well-established and longstanding genre (from romantic comedies to slasher films to Westerns to action movies), sports movies tend to operate according to certain conventions. As my posts this week have demonstrated, there are certainly different options within those conventions, such as the lovable loser story or the heroic underdog tale. But even across those sub-genres, many of the genre’s conventional beats and stages still apply: the training montage, the moment when all seems hopeless and lost for our protagonists, the dramatic shift that signals the start of something more positive, and so on. Whether we’re talking about the Daniel-san in The Karate Kid (1984), the Jamaican bobsled team in Cool Runnings (1993), or Keanu and his fellow scabs in The Replacements (2000; another team coached by Gene Hackman, in case the genre echoes weren’t strong enough), the story is still the story, by and large.
So what happens when a filmmaker whose career has been one long refusal to adhere to convention turns his attention to sports movies? We’ve seen two recent examples of that combination in the career of David O. Russell, the highly unconventional filmmaker behind movies as diverse but uniformly unusual as Spanking the Monkey (1994), Three Kings (1999), and I Heart Huckabees (2004). Russell’s most recent film was the Oscar-nominated blockbuster American Hustle (2013), but before that he made two successive films that I would classify as highly unconventional sports movies: The Fighter (2010), the story of real-life Lowell, Mass. boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his drug-addicted half-brother Dickie (the phenomenal Christian Bale); and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), a screwball romantic comedy about two troubled Philadelphians (played to perfection by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) that turns into a sports movie as they train for a climactic dance competition while Cooper’s father (Robert De Niro) makes a life-or-death bet on an upcoming Eagles game.
In some ways, both films adhere closely to the kinds of conventions I highlighted above: Silver Linings has both an extended training montage for the dance competition and a lovable losers ending (they score a highly mediocre score, but it’s what they needed for the bet so mediocrity is victory in this case); The Fighter ends with its heroic underdog overcoming his obstacles, winning against all odds, and winning the girl in the process. But it’s in their extended, nuanced, dark yet thoughtful portrayals of mental and physical illness that both films go outside the bounds of typical sports movies. By far the best sequences in The Fighter involve Bale’s Dickie, who neither a hero nor a lovable loser, but an addict and criminal struggling to survive from day to day. And despite its more conventional (and foreshadowed from the title on) happy ending, Silver Linings takes all three of its protagonists and its audience with them to uncomfortable places, asking us to see these characters not as underdogs or losers or any other types, but as three-dimensional humans struggling with the kinds of challenges against which there is perhaps no victory, simply endurance. That might not be a sports movie lesson, but it’s a pretty important one.
Last MovieStudying tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

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