American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Micky Ward has less personality than the hero of any other boxing movie I can remember. Maybe that's because he can't get a word in edgewise. He has a motormouth crackhead for a brother, a mom who acts as his manager and seven blond-headed sisters who seem to be on a break from a musical being filmed on the next soundstage. It's easy to imagine Micky growing up in this family and sitting ignored in the corner.
David O. Russell's “The Fighter” is based on Ward's true story, and perhaps Micky (Mark Wahlberg) is flat and withdrawn here because he is in life. His family is spectacularly dysfunctional. Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), his half-brother, is the failed version of what Micky hopes to become: a poor kid from Lowell, Mass., who wins because of his ability to outlast savage punishment and finally land a winning blow.
Micky grew up hero-worshipping Dicky, who lost a lot of fights but allegedly knocked over Sugar Ray Leonard once upon a time. Then Dicky got hooked on crack, and now we see him as a goofy, scrawny guy with a Skeezix haircut, a cigarette behind his ear and an arm around his brother's shoulders. They're being filmed for an HBO documentary, which Dicky thinks is about his own unlikely comeback and everybody else knows is about his decline and fall. Crackheads sometimes get the two confused.
As the movie opens, Micky doggedly begins a series of defeats in bad matchups. Then his life changes when he meets a sweet-faced, tough-talking barmaid named Charlene (Amy Adams). She knows the neighborhood, knows the story and knows that Micky's problem is his family. His mother, Alice (Melissa Leo in a teeth-gratingly brilliant performance), sees both boys as performers in a long-running tribute to herself. She presides in a living room filled with her seven daughters, who smoke so much and use so much hairspray, they must be considered fire hazards.