Sometimes you can tell right away that you’re going to like a movie. I had that experience Friday night when I saw Fat City at the Film Forum with Alex (who posted his thoughts here and a few more here). It starts with an atmospheric Kris Kristofferson song – “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” which I downloaded about 30 seconds after getting home – and on-location establishing shots of dingy Stockton, California, then finds its central figure, played by a rough around the edges Stacy Keach, waking up in a bare flophouse room in his underwear. There follows a long, entirely visual sequence in which he grabs a cigarette, checks for matches, searches for them in his pants pocket, coat pocket, and on the end table, gets dressed and goes outside, looks around blinking in the sunlight for a few seconds, throws his unsmoked cigarette down and goes back to his room. I’m not sure if that scene would play as funny on every viewing, but that night in that particular theater it did, and by the end of the sequence I was sold.
I went in with pretty high hopes, too, because the movie was directed by John Huston, but as it turns out a lot of the Huston movies I’d seen and loved don’t have much in common with Fat City – the stylized awesomeness of Maltese Falcon or the fun camp of Key Largo or even Treasure of the Sierra Madre, although the underlying worldview of that last one is probably not all that different. Fat City is in the gritty*, naturalistic vein of a lot of 70s cinema, with a loose plot but a very specific setting and characters. Stacy Keach plays Billy Tully, a 29-year-old itinerant semi-ex-boxer on his way from low to lower, and a ridiculously young Jeff Bridges is Ernie Munger, just starting out in the ring and headed nowhere that great.
While hardly a cheery flick, it was not so slit-your-wrists grim as I’d been expecting from a movie that’s usually summed up as “70s boxing flick about losers and drunks,” and lot of that is thanks to Nicholas Colasanto (aka Raging Bull’s Tommy “He ain’t pretty no more” Como) as the boxers’ small-time manager, and Art Aragon as his assistant and foil. It’s all in the delivery with those two, and they’re pitch-perfect, often very funny and 100% believable – Aragon was a professional boxer in the ’40s and ’50s, and I was actually surprised to learn that Colasanto never was.
Fat City is not a movie with a particularly high opinion of women, but then, as Alex pointed out afterwards, it’s not a movie with a particularly high opinion of anyone. Susan Tyrrell was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Tully’s dumb, shrill, alcoholic pseudo-love interest, and although she’s completely convincing in the role the character is so irritating as to be almost unwatchable. On the other hand it’s hard to argue that Tully, who finds a way to make bad luck worse four times out of five, really deserves much more.
What I liked most about Fat City was its subtlety – so few movies trust their audience to that extent. I kept waiting for something melodramatic to happen: Tully hits the woman, or her ex gets out of jail and tries to kill him, or a boxer is killed in the ring, or the characters scream at each other about their feelings… well, non-spoiler alert, nothing like that happens. There’s plenty going on in a given scene, but Huston never feels obligated to spell it out for anyone.
Finally, I realized in writing this that I actually have no idea why it’s called Fat City. But put in on your Netflix queue, and then when you watch it, lemme know what you think… or better yet see it at the Film Forum where it’s playing through October 1st. This is one of those movies that might get lost on TV and benefits from a big screen, dark room and into-it crowd.
*Ugh, not only was that word already overused when talking about movies, but now I can’t hear it without thinking of David Eckstein. New Year’s resolution: I will stop using the word “gritty.” Right after this post.