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On Movies: Love 'The Fighter,' not 'Phillip Morris'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 16, 2010 - "I Love You Phillip Morris" is a very broad comedy that poses the cinematic question, "What is Ewan McGregor doing in an exceedingly crude sex-buddy flick with Jim Carrey?" Particularly one that was written and directed by the guys who gave the world "Bad Santa," not to mention "Badder Santa?"

OK, "Bad Santa" had its moments. Unlike "I Love You Phillip Morris."

Carrey plays (at the top of his lungs) Steven Russell, by all appearances a happily married cop who plays the organ at church -- this may be a pun. Then he has a serious automobile accident and awakens on the way to the hospital with an epiphany: He is gay. Like so many men who suddenly discover their homosexuality, he goes on a crime spree and is sent to prison, where he falls in love with a fellow inmate named Phillip Morris (McGregor). From that point, the movie launches into a crazed stew of dirty jokes, unbelievable scams and unreal jailbreaks, interrupted by occasional moments of clearly fraudulent tenderness.

We are told that the writing-directing team of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa adapted "I Love You Phillip Morris" from a true story. Well, the character that Jim Carrey plays with his usual flailing about doesn't seem like any real person, gay or straight, that I've ever met, but then I've never been to Mars.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" sags into sentimentality in the middle, and the rest of the movie is wasted setting up the "surprise" denouement, which you can see coming at you in the distance like a very slow freight train. Through it all, Jim Carrey seems less like a gay man and more like a drunk frat boy at a Halloween party pretending to be a gay man, although I have to admit Ewan McGregor does have his Doris Day moments.

Opens Friday, Dec. 17

'The Fighter'

There is a wonderful scene near the beginning of "The Fighter" that tells us that this is going to be more than just a boxing movie. With a small entourage in tow, two brothers -- technically, they are half brothers -- trot and shadowbox their way through the shabby streets of the old mill town of Lowell, Mass. They are headed for the gym to work out. People greet them from the front yards of three-decker flats, and come out of stores and garages and pretend to spar with the brothers.

The economically depressed town is in love with the hometown heroes, who are polar opposites in personality. The older one, Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), who once fought Sugar Ray Leonard and now is his brother's trainer, is full of energy and smart-aleck insults and he talks and moves like a man high on adrenaline -- or something.

Younger brother Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is friendly but he hangs back, shyly, and keeps moving to unstick Dicky from launching into extended conversations. You realize that, if the young men depended on Dicky to reach their destination, they might well never get there.

And yet, we soon learn, Micky is counting on his half brother and his equally erratic mother, who acts as his manager, to get him to the light welterweight championship.

Early in the movie, which is based on a true story, Mom and Dicky book Micky a fight with an opponent who is much heavier than Micky, above his weight division, and the bigger boxer almost kills him.

After that disaster, urged on by the girl who loves him (Amy Adams), Micky works his way through a world of trouble and finally manages to extricate himself from the control of his mother and his brother. Much of the anger of Micky's family, which includes a gaggle of rowdy sisters, is directed, verbally and physically, at Micky's girlfriend.

As the mother, Melissa Leo rants and rages like a spurned queen out of a Greek tragedy. Leo gives a powerful performance, although at times she does seem to be awfully close to rolling over the top of passion into the trough of bathos. The same could be said of Christian Bale. Bale and Leo chew a lot of scenery on the way to the inevitable title fight, giving the sort of performances that shout "Oscar," which is both a compliment and a caveat.

We get so used to mother and brother roaring in indignant fury every time Micky tries to tie his own shoelaces, the movie seems to lurch into a lull when Dicky finally takes over his own life. The mother, in particular, after fighting so fiercely, like the mother in "Aliens," finally goes too easily into meekness. Or maybe we just miss her and her horribleness.

Despite some muddles, "The Fighter" is, on the whole, an exciting movie. Director David O. Russell ("Three Kings") is known for character-driven drama, and he does a pretty good job of juggling some complicated family dynamics. His fight scenes are first rate, and Wahlberg is totally convincing as a tank-town boxer who rises above his raising.

Opens Friday, Dec. 17

Harper Barnes,; the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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