Gavin O’Connor’s (Miracle Pride and Glory) stirring new drama Warrior is an underdog tale set in the nascent sport of Mixed Martial Arts fighting. In its relatively short life MMA has yet to inspire much quality cinema of note. It now has its Rocky.
Warrior’s twist on the traditional underdog formula is to provide us with dual protagonists: the fightin’ Conlon brothers Brendan (Joel Edgerton) and Tommy (Tom Hardy). Neither have spoken to each other since the dissolution of the parents’ marriage fourteen years earlier. Both of late have fallen on hard times. Tommy is an Iraq war veteran who has turned to pills and booze since returning from abroad; Brendan is a high school science teacher and devoted family man victimized by the financial crisis. Circumstances compel them both to seek salvation in the fight game.
Conveniently enough the opportunity of a lifetime arrives in the form of Sparta a brand-new winner-take-all MMA tournament that awards its champion a cool $5 million – more than enough for Brendan to save his house from foreclosure or for Tommy to make good on his pledge to provide for the family of a friend killed in Iraq. By this point we know for certain that fate has determined Brendan and Tommy will meet in the final and we know for certain how utterly ridiculous this scenario is. And yet we accept it because by this point Warrior already has us in its corner.
The origins of the brothers’ enmity are ultimately traced to their father Paddy (Nick Nolte) a monstrous alcoholic whose abusiveness led their mother and Tommy to flee fourteen years prior. Brendan stayed behind and Tommy never forgave him for it. When we see Paddy he’s broken-down husk of a man God-fearing and 1000 days sober his face creased with shame and regret. Neither son can stand the sight of their old man but Tommy in need of someone to train him for the tournament reluctantly enlists his father’s help. Paddy eyeing a last chance at redemption enthusiastically complies.
Cue the training montage. A fighter rising from obscurity to the upper echelons in his sport within a matter of weeks is hard to swallow; when two fighters do it it’s a borderline insult to the sport. MMA aficionados might blanch at watching Tommy and Brendan gain one unlikely win after another; more likely they’ll be too absorbed by the action to care. It helps that Hardy and Edgerton both look the part and are both skilled enough at their craft to lend the film’s many brutal fight scenes a distinct realism. It helps even more that the story and the actors' stellar performances have us firmly aligned with their goals.
O’Conner a veteran of the genre deploys the underdog tropes at his disposal freely but assiduously crafting a tale that is unabashedly far-fetched but grounded in characters who are intensely appealing and who feel authentic. The storytelling is clumsy at times – that Nolte’s character listens to a book-on-tape of Moby Dick throughout the film feels particularly heavy-handed – but Warrior wisely steers clear of bombastic speeches or cloying sentiment.
Warrior’s climactic final fight in which the estranged brothers at last meet in the ring is both gut- and heart-wrenching. When the film’s suitably happy ending does eventually arrive the film gives way ever-so-briefly to hokeyness. But after what these kids have gone through you can forgive them for getting a little emotional.
On the one hand it’s a comedy. We meet Sarah Huttinger (Jennifer Aniston) a thirtysomething knee deep in a pre-midlife crisis with a way too patient fiancé (Mark Ruffalo) and a nowhere job. Her anxiety is only exacerbated when she visits her picture perfect family in Pasadena CA a place she’s never felt like she belonged especially after her mother died. But then it gets weirder when Sarah finds out her family was the inspiration for The Graduate. It seems Sarah’s grandmother (Shirley MacLaine) was the Mrs. Robinson and that her mother ran off with the same guy briefly right before she got married to Sarah’s dad. Sarah becomes obsessed with finding this “other” guy Beau Burroughs (Kevin Costner) believing he might be the key. He’s a key all right--to a night of drunken lust. But none of this is going to solve Sarah’s problems now is it? She’s got to find her own answers in her heart. Excuse me while I go throw up. Maybe Jennifer Aniston should just write this year off. Not only did she lose a husband to another woman she also hasn’t made very smart choices in her career. Derailed completely missed the track and now this comedy is no better suited to her talents. Aniston is much better playing sweet and quirky rather than messy and neurotic and honestly shines brighter when co-starring with strong comedic talents such as Ben Stiller (Along Came Polly) or Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty). (That’s why we’re holding our breath for her next film The Break Up with [real-life boyfriend?] Vince Vaughn.) Shirley MacLaine making a habit out of being the best thing in an otherwise dull movie (In Her Shoes anyone?) is a hoot as grandma. Costner doesn’t look anything like Dustin Hoffman thank goodness but has zero chemistry with Aniston. And who knows what the hell Ruffalo is doing wasting his talents doing this romantic comedy crap. Just say no Mark. As a director Rob Reiner hasn’t had much luck lately either. This is the first movie he’s directed since 2003’s Alex & Emma--and we all remember what a success that was. To be fair Reiner apparently took over the reins from screenwriter Ted Griffin (Matchstick Men) who was making his feature film debut ten days into production and changed things quite a bit. That’s not surprising because Rumor quite simply lacks direction. It wants desperately to be a comedy with a hint of relationship drama but somehow misses the mark on both. Now the idea of a Graduate update is somewhat intriguing. Reminds me of Robert Altman’s The Player in which The Graduate’s original screenwriter Buck Henry pitches a sequel of sorts to a studio development exec. It’s meant to be a joke of course but somewhere in the spoof there might’ve been a sliver of mad brilliance. Too bad Rumor ruins it.
Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) a bleeding heart poet and staunch environmentalist is convinced a series of unexplained coincidences involving a tall African doorman somehow mean something leading him to married metaphysicians Bernard and Vivian Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin)--otherwise known as the Existential Detectives. Instead of looking for other people this pair tirelessly investigates the mysteries of their clients' secret innermost lives--their "Beings " so to speak--to help them answer their questions. Immediately digging in Bernard and Vivian find out that Albert has a deep-seated hatred for Brad Stand (Jude Law) a golden-boy sales executive at the popular retail superstore chain Huckabees who at first sponsors Albert's Open Spaces Coalition to save a nearby marsh from commercial construction but who ends up taking over the coalition. The Existential Detectives believe Brad may be the key to cracking Albert's case but get sidetracked when Brad hires them for himself--leading them to explore Brad's ambitions hang-ups and his superficial relationship with Huckabees' hot blonde spokesmodel Dawn (Naomi Watts). Meanwhile Albert becomes disenfranchised with Bernard and Vivian and pairs up with another of the duo's clients--firefighter tough guy and uncompromising soul searcher Tommy (Mark Wahlberg). Together they join forces with the Jaffes' arch nemesis sexy French philosopher Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert) whose life teachings revolve around "cruelty manipulation and meaninglessness." Now as Being intermixes with Nothingness Albert Tommy Brad Dawn Bernard Vivian and Caterine get all tangled up in one another as their wild romp through life's biggest questions brings them to some startling truths. Whew!
With such a clever script to back them up it isn't hard to see why the Huckabees wannabes turn in some cracking good performances. Schwartzman once again plays a nebbish sullen but lovable geek (similar to his side-splitting turn in Rushmore) bringing out the film's heart and soul especially with his environmental poetry ("You ROCK rock!"). Veterans Hoffman and Tomlin who are dead-on as the happily married Existential Detectives and Huppert as the deadpan French philosopher complement the proceedings beautifully. For the first time in a long time Hoffman doesn't overplay his part instead letting his quiet inner "Being" out taking his character's philosophies to heart ("Everything you ever desired or wanted to be you already have and are"). But who knew more serious actors--Mark Wahlberg Jude Law and Naomi Watts--could be so excruciatingly funny? Wahlberg's freethinking obstinate firefighter would rather ride a bike to a fire than get into a gas-guzzling fire truck while Watts' Dawn decides she doesn't need to be pretty and is fearless with overalls a bonnet and Oreo cookies stuck in her teeth. As the straight man Law actually has the most difficult part playing the handsome cad who thinks he doesn't believe in all that existential bullcrap but ever so slightly gets slammed with the reality of it anyway.
Writer/director David O. Russell is one fascinating guy. With a body of work including the really weird and wild Spanking the Monkey the hilarious slapsticky Flirting With Disaster and the intense Three Kings it's obvious he is capable of handling a wide variety of subjects. With Huckabees Russell gets into some serious deep thinking. He says he became "intrigued with the idea of a detective following someone around not for any criminal or personal intrigue but rather as part of a very serious investigation about existence itself " drawing concepts from several different strains of existentialism--from the non-dual interconnectedness theories of Eastern philosophy (Bernard and Vivian's take) to the Sartrean notions of a more meaningless universe that demands a profound individualism (Caterine's point of view). Huh? Don't worry your pretty little heads about it too much. Russell's bone-crushing sense of humor comes shining through--as does his unique vision as the camera is used in new and different ways (especially creative when Albert is trying to find his "Being")--to piece together a wondrous coherent albeit thought-provoking little gem. Oscar gold awaits.