There’s a certain type of movie that had its heyday in the late 1960s and ’70s, in which story and plot were subservient to character and mood. The film really isn’t interested in going anywhere in the traditional sense; it just wants to explore a certain setting and group of people.
Sometimes the results are wonderful, such as “Five Easy Pieces” with Jack Nicholson, but just as often these character-driven flicks can be self-indulgent and exasperating. Scenes will just ramble on and on, and it feels like the movie was made for the satisfaction of the actors appearing in it than any audience paying to watch it.
“Fat City” falls toward the former end of the scale. This boxing tale drags at times, but it’s still a worthwhile exploration of how men behave in the ring, compared to how they act outside — most importantly, in their relationships to women.
Director John Huston had one of those careers that is still talked about: Director, writer, even a late turn into acting that made him as iconic onscreen as the work he did behind the camera. His first film was “The Maltese Falcon,” and he was still making vibrant movies right up until his death.
The 1972 movie is based on a book by Leonard Gardner, which he adapted for the screen himself. It’s essentially about two boxers, one just starting out and the other past his prime, whose lives intersect but whose stories run mostly parallel.
Stacy Keach is Billy Tully, who’s been out of boxing for two years and is looking to get back in. Billy is only 29 years old, but the cuts and the blows have whittled him down. He drinks a lot, not quite enough to call him a drunk, but he’s on his way.
One day sparring in the gym he runs across Ernie Munger, an 18-year-old whom Billy immediately recognizes as a natural. He sends the kid to his old manager Ruben, played by Nicholas Colasanto, who would go on to be best known as “Coach” on the TV show “Cheers.”
Ernie is played by Jeff Bridges, who himself is quietly having one of the great film acting careers. He plays Ernie as an earnest kid who’s physically tough as nails, but is “soft in the center,” as Billy drunkenly labels him.
Ernie lets other people choose his path for him. If it weren’t for Billy’s encouragement, he probably would never have walked into a boxing ring. When his girlfriend gets pregnant (Candy Clark), there’s a great scene in his car where she steers him into marrying her, without it ever seeming like it was her idea. She also forces him to quit boxing for awhile, although he gets back into it by the film’s end.
While basically a decent guy, Ernie is very much like Billy describes him: Tough on the outside, but with no core convictions, goals or even an identity beyond what other people provide for him.
Billy, meanwhile, just wants something solid to hold onto in this world. His wife dumped him when his boxing career petered out, and he’s left to taking menial day jobs picking farm crops to get by. At a bar he runs into a woman who continually mouths off to her boyfriend, a black man who abides her verbal abuse stoically. This is Oma, played by Susan Tyrrell, who would earn an Oscar nomination for her abrasive performance.
One of the notable things about “Fat City” is the way people of different races mingle without any seeming static about it. The town of Stockton, California, where the film takes places, is acornucopia of whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians. But no one looks askance at Oma dating a black man.
When Oma’s man is sent to jail, Billy gloms onto her, even though it’s clear this is a person whose ambitions end at getting out of bed for a cream sherry. “You can count on me,” he tells her repeatedly, and it’s obvious that Billy is attracted to the idea of being important to someone, rather than any real connection between them.
Keach and Tyrrell’s scenes do tend to ramble a bit. There’s one bit where he’s cooking her dinner, which she refuses to eat, and then when she does decide to eat he won’t allow her to have any, etc. I’m sure this is the sort of scene that actors live for, with an organic texture and lots of big emotions to fling around. As a viewer, I kept waiting for the editor to assert himself.
There’s only a few boxing scenes in “Fat City,” since as I say I don’t think that’s where the movie’s real heart lies. They’re pretty convincing, in that they look real boxing matches where there are a flurry of punches, few of which land cleanly. Billy’s big comeback bout is interesting, because it’s against a Mexican puncher whom Ruben fears is too good for Billy’s first match in two years.
The opponent, Lucero, quietly arrives in town with his hat and small suitcase, and seems to be nursing some kind of serious stomach ailment. Billy immediately senses this in the ring, but Ruben advises him to fight conservatively. After the match — which Billy wins, barely — Lucero quietly collects his money and leaves the arena as the lights go out. It’s a sad, almost wordless portrait of the journeyman professional athlete, whose body is his currency, carefully rationed and leveraged.
“Fat City” may meander like a lazy river, and sometimes gets stuck in eddies of its own making. But for the most part I enjoyed swirling around with these characters for awhile.