I saw Southpaw a week ago Monday, down at L.A. Live on 7.13, and the best part of the whole experience was eating the popcorn when it was still warmish and buttery and salted. Otherwise I just sank into my seat and toughed it out. It’s been a while since I disliked a lead character as much as Jake Gyllenhaal‘s Billy Hope, who’s basically an amalgam of physical and behavioral boxer traits from other movies turned up to 11 — Jake La Motta‘s tenacious, bore-right-in combativeness, Terry Malloy‘s wounded face (enhanced here with the swellings and cuts and the old watery blood eye) plus the emotional wallow of Sylvester Stallone‘s Rocky with an extra-heavy helping of simian sauce (punchy speech, emotionally primitive, no diction to speak of, barely literate).
On top of which Hope, a light heavyweight champ, spends money like a drunken sailor and lives in an ostentatious McMansion that almost made me physically sick. The guy’s an absolute mutt. I was sitting there going “I’m stuck with this knuckle-dragger for the next two hours?”
And you’re telling me that Rachel McAdams‘ Maureen, who relates to Hope because they both had tough Hell’s Kitchen childhoods, is his loyal wife? No way. She’s way too good for him. And then something awful happens and the pillars of Hope’s life start tumbling and crashing and before you know it he’s down and out with nowhere to go but up. If, that is, he can suck it in and learn from his mistakes and listen to advice from his humble but wisely paternal trainer, played by Forest Whitaker in a Clint Eastwood-in-Million Dollar Baby mode, about how to start boxing wisely and not get hit so much and so on. Hey, maybe Billy can go to a community college and learn how to speak like an educated eleven year old!
And then Billy’s ex-manager, played by by 50 Cent, arranges for a big, career-restoring championship fight with the arrogant young buck who…you don’t want to know. I didn’t want to know when I was watching it. I wanted to bolt but I had to stay. Because I’m a pro and I ride it out.
There’s one solid thing about Southpaw, and that’s Hope’s daughter Leila, or more precisely how she’s played by Oona Lawrence. It’s obvious right away that Leila’s got twice the number of brain cells that Billy has and is much more emotionally mature. You poor little girl, I was muttering. You’re smart and rooted with a great life ahead of you, and you’re stuck with this ape of a father with cuts and swellings and a U.S. Marines haircut. Every line Lawrence speaks feels true and clean. She sustained me, Lawrence did. She kept me alive.
The oppressiveness of Billy Hope is doubled-down by the fact that Jake, whom I loved in Nightcrawler and End of Watch and Brokeback Mountain and on the B’way stage in Constellations, is over-acting him. Way. Until the halfway point, that is, when Billy realizes he’s fucked everything up and he has to listen to Whitaker and play it smart. But until that turn happens Southpaw is pure hell. Everything Jake does and says is too much. I was silently screaming and pleading with him to turn it down and take it easy and…you know, let the audience come to him. Gyllenhaal has always been a smart, sensitive actor who knows the value of subtlety and centered-ness so why is he hamming it up so much? I’ll tell you why. Antoine fucking Fuqua is why.
Fuqua doesn’t direct — he shovels. If Stanley Kubrick was Rizzoli’s on Fifth Avenue and David Fincher is The Sharper Image, Fuqua is Target. He’s strictly a low-rent guy who got lucky, once, with Training Day, and it’s been downhill ever since. He and Denzel started things off reasonably well in the first 30 minutes of The Equalizer and then they just turned on the bullshit and went crazy and you just had to say “whoa, whoa…stop.” Same thing here. I’m now fairly certain that Fuqua is going to fuck up The Magnificent Seven. He doesn’t know how to deal his cards so that the payoffs really hit the mark and mean something.
I just read a superb three-paragraph pan by Timeout‘s Josh Rothkopf. It’s perfect:
“Like a Raging Bull that’s been clocked one too many times in the head, Antoine Fuqua’s blood-simple boxing melodrama is so loaded with obviousness, it gets more pained groans from the audience than the guys in the ring. A movie that makes Rocky and The Fighter feel like models of complexity, Southpaw is a redemption story — and let’s thank screenwriter Kurt Sutter for including the word ‘redemption’ more than once in the dialogue.
“Billy Hope is an inspiration to fans, transcending his tough upbringing in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen to claim the light-heavyweight title along with a lovely devoted wife and luxurious home. It’s all quickly taken away from him in the movie’s Job-like reversal as an accidental gunshot turns Billy into a drug-abusing widower, his young daughter placed into protective custody. Will he straighten up via some tough love from a scrappy gym-owning coach and make a lucrative televised comeback? Viewers who have texting to do won’t need to look up.
“Already, Southpaw is being positioned as an awards-worthy plunge into grit from star Jake Gyllenhaal. He has bulked up tremendously and wears the character’s grief like a sweaty robe. But compared to his fast, flinty turn in last year’s Nightcrawler, this is simple stuff for him, suppressing the actor’s natural craftiness into lugubrious Stallone-isms. The performance is poundingly physical, yet it’s set in a fantasy world where family tensions get resolved quicker than jaws hit the canvas.”