Fat City (John Huston, 1972)

It’s the story of two boxers – one past his prime, the other not yet in his prime, and each one’s attempt to make it big (or in Tully (Stacy Keach), the older one’s case, make it back).  Working from the ground-up in a dinky little gym, fighting in sparsely-advertised bouts against other has-beens or other raw rookies, and balancing boxing with hard labor jobs, no money, and woman trouble, the fame and glory usually afforded to the hero of a sports movie is out of the question.  We know it, and whether or not Tully and Ernie (Jeff Bridges) want to admit it, they probably know it too.  “Fat City” is a pretty hopeless movie, in that its grungy, disheveled protagonists are chasing hopeless pipe dreams – just what you’d expect in a John Huston movie, reminding us of the the gold diggers’ hopeless pipe dreams of fame and fortune in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” decades before “Fat City”, and of drunk counsul Geoffrey Firmin’s hopeless pipe dream of reconciling with his wife in “Under the Volcano” years after “Fat City.”  I don’t think that “Fat City” is quite as consistent or as stunningly unique as either of those films, but when it works, it works.  When it doesn’t, it doesn’t.  Exactly what you’d expect from a decent movie 😉 .

It does the right thing by being a sports film that’s not a sports film.  In the same vein as “Raging Bull”, “Fat City” doesn’t focus entirely on the sport or the big showdown, but rather, at least the majority of the time, on characters who just happen to be athletes in that particular sport.  The boxing scenes themselves are excellent, especially when close-ups on, say, Tully’s out-of-it face perfectly reflect a possible ‘what the fuck am I doing here?’ mindset that’s just haunting and says more than any dialogue could, but really, the story here is about Tully and Ernie themselves, and how they balance boxing with their incredibly unexceptional everyday lives.  Jeff Bridges is solid if unremarkable as Ernie, a young and impressionable kid who you’re never sure if he actually wants the life of a boxer and the life of a husband that he finds himself drifting into rather than working hard for (though Candy Clark as his wife is little more than a stereotype – I was glad she had as little screentime as she did).  But really, the star of the show here is Stacy Keach, who’s just outstanding as Tully.  Yeah, he’s athletic enough (and emotive enough) for the boxing scenes to seem genuine, like he’s fighting not just for some comeback shot, but for his soul.  But the bread and butter of this performance, and this film, are the scenes of Tully’s everyday life, getting by one day working in the field and one drunken binge at a time.  When he’s drinking, he seems drunk.  When he’s working in the fields, you can feel his exhaustion and his sweat.  When he’s trying to calm down a distraught Oma (Susan Tyrrell) at the bar, the back-and-forth between the two feels authentic and improvised.  Maybe it’s just me, but I can think of few images that feel more genuine and heartwarming than that of a drunk Tully and a drunk Oma arm-in-arm outside the bar, laughing, singing, rambling and shuffling along.  I’d say that it’s a prime example of a John Huston-esque image, but I have no idea how to describe what a John Huston-esque image is.  As soon as I saw it, I just automatically attributed it to something John Huston would show us, for whatever reason, so I leave it at that.  But one of the best scenes in the film involves little more than Tully trying to convince Oma, now his girlfriend, to eat the dinner that he’s made in their shabby little apartment.  As she’s getting more and more shrill and uncontrollable, Tully’s so desperately trying to keep his cool, but his rage – rage at Oma, at the box of Oma’s jailed ex’s clothes sitting on the floor, at his being washed up as a boxer, at being unable to hold a job, at his lot in life – can barely be contained.  In an otherwise just-above-average addition to John Huston’s filmography, Stacy Keach is wonderfully subdued, even in the middle of a bout or a drunken binge (though Susan Tyrrell, who remarkably received an Oscar nomination for her performance as Oma, makes me wanna  from the moment she enters the picture with how shrill and irritating she is.  If anything, though, at least I can feel Tully’s pain 😛 ).

Really, the biggest issue I had with “Fat City” was its pacing and just a bizarrely uneven story structure.  Whenever a chunk of the movie focused on Ernie, I felt like Tully needed more of the movie’s emphasis, and whenever Tully dominated the proceedings, I felt like Ernie needed more screentime.  I suppose you can consider that a compliment, that I cared enough about these two characters to be annoyed whenever one seemed to be getting the short-shrift in terms of screentime, and maybe it was that the two just didn’t have all that much screentime together, but I just feel like more balance was needed between the two men and their stories – and I can’t even say which one really got the shaft, it all depends on which scene I’m watching at the time.  Also, by the end it’s implied that months, maybe even years, have elapsed from film’s beginning to film’s end, but boy was I taken aback by this little revelation.  In a movie this short (it’s only an hour and a half), that’s just another indicator that more balance was needed in story structure.  Still, though, “Fat City” is a fine film, with nice parallels to be drawn between the stories of 30-something Tully and 20-something Ernie – Ernie possibly reminding Tully of better times, Tully’s current lot in life serving as a possible sign of what’s to come for Ernie, etc etc.  They meet up under friendly terms at the YMCA in one of the film’s first scenes, and their paths grow more and more divergent as the story progresses, only to come together once again in the film’s final shot, a wonderful one.  But with a dual-storyline as uneven as “Fat City”‘s, I’m not sure that the movie even deserves such a profound and screencapingly great final shot.  Either way, though, it’s a shot that’s ambiguous and leaves a hell of a lot up in the air about the maybe-bleak, maybe-hopeful future of these guys – a telltale sign of a damned good, genre-defying ‘sports’ movie.


3 comments so far

  1. Allison on

    Susan Tyrrell deserved an Oscar win, k, thnx.

  2. Mahfuza on

    First blog I read after wakeup from sleep today!

    Are you tension? panic?

  3. Previewfilms.net on

    Great movie. Watch the trailer here and get the film


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