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Loose and woozy, 1972’s Fat City found an old master mastering the new. In his hard-luck tale (adapted from Leonard Gardner’s 1969 novel) of boxers discovering that winning and losing mean pretty much the same thing, John Huston embraced the freedoms of the then-New Hollywood: frank talk about sex and race, long-playing scenes of lowlife portraiture, a narrative informed by old-school act-structure rigor but also free at any time just to piss off and roam. The opening submerges us in Seventies aimlessness: Stacy Keach molders hungover in a flophouse bed, in tighty whities with holes in them. As Kris Kristofferson mumble-sings “Help Me Make It Through the Night” on the soundtrack, Keach’s washed-up fighter rises, halfheartedly dresses, stumbles out to the skid-row street for a smoke, and then heads back upstairs, his head finally clear enough for the movie to start. Keach looks like he smells terrible, but he also exhibits at each moment this man’s soused optimism, his belief that he’ll get it together, get back in shape, get back to winning purses. He does, of course, in fits and starts, but he learns the same hard-knock lesson picked up by young-buck white-hope Ernie, played by a radiant Jeff Bridges: You can train and fight your heart out, but you’re still going to be asking, in a daze, at bout’s end, “Did I get knocked out?” Even if you triumph, life socks you hard.
The movie’s bleak, but it’s funnier than most comedies, and it suggests that life’s toughness doesn’t preclude joyfulness. Huston is in love with big talk, the glorious buzzing of barfly Oma (Susan Tyrrell), who shouts, “Screw everybody!” and holds forth on the decline of the white race: “It started going downhill in 1492 when Columbus discovered syphilis.” But she’s no hater; her noisily tender relationship with her lover Earl (Curtis Cokes), a black man, is the movie’s warmest. Almost as rich is the jolly hustle of Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), who manages the boxers. Ruben oversells his fighters to everyone, including themselves, insisting that self-confidence is the key to everything — a jag America is still on, 43 years later. When Bridges’s Ernie gets bloody-nosed K.O.’d in the first round, Ruben still has him doff his trunks to give to the next amateur fighter, even though they’re spotted with gore.
Ruben peddles the promise of big futures that aren’t coming, but privately he’s sanguine about the punishment life deals out. In one of the film’s many scenes of revelatory chitchat, he and a trainer blithely compare wounds from their own days in the ring: “How’s your nose? Can you breathe?” “Not on a wet day.” Like everyone in Huston’s bottomed-out America, they’re hurting, but they’re persevering, hoping that tomorrow’s dry — and that they won’t get knocked out.
Directed by John Huston
Sony Pictures Repertory Release
Opens November 20, Film Forum