Predictable is a term I happen to use a lot on this website. I think it’s a complaint I can use for the majority of mainstream films from the romantic comedy to the found footage horror movie. It’s worth mentioning to these movies credit though that when I use this phrase I usually don’t literally mean that the entire film from start to finish was totally predictable. Most of these movies I have that criticism for at least have one or two things they add that make them at least a tad original. It’s rare that a find an actual movie where I am able to call every single plot point before it happens. The latest boxing drama Southpaw has the distinction of being one of those rare occasions. Aside from an as expected fantastic performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, every aspect of the movie is contrived and uninspired. The movie tries to get the audience to cry and feel moved but it ends up trying to such a hollow, ridiculous degree to do this that there were some scenes where I couldn’t help but laugh at how pathetic and lazy it all felt.
If you got a quarter for every part of this synopsis that seems clichéd, you’d probably have enough money to just rent The Fighter instead. All I have to say is the name of the main character for you to know what type of film this will be. The name of our hero is Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal). The movie makes absolutely sure that you know this wasn’t some odd coincidence. It does make you wonder if the sportscasters cracked up delivering such golden lines as “Hope is back” and “Hope wins”. Anyways, Billy Hope is greatest fighter in the U.S. and he gets the support he needs from his also orphaned wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) as well as his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). On the verge of retiring, his wife is accidently shot and killed during a fight between Billy and his rival Miguel (Miguel Gomez). A downward spiral leads to him losing everything including his daughter after she gets taken away by child protective services. To get his daughter and go back on to the right path, he receives training from a washed up fighter (Forest Whitaker) so that he can go up against Miguel for his dead wife.
This is one of those movies where the logic is that everything has to be dark and gritty every second for it to be taken seriously. Not a single joke is cracked in the film and every conversation and every action that takes place in the film feels there just to bully the audience into having a reaction. The movie is just scene after scene of the writer betting himself that he can’t put the main character into a worse situation. Do you think it’s his low when his wife dies? Nope. Do you think it’s his low when he’s taking cocaine and threatening to kill his best friend? Nope. Do you think it’s his low when he loses his house? Nope. It’s come to a point where the movie transforms its protagonist into a prop that other characters can hit around in the name of eliciting something out of audience members. Maybe a few of these moments would feel moving or unforgettable if it was thrown in with character development or an interesting story but it’s just scene after scene of these manipulative moments and it ends up feeling more ridiculous than edgy. 12 Years a Slave and Prisoners are two very dark dramas that I love but these films still make room for wit, complex themes, fascinating characters and compelling stories. These movies understand that for dark aspects like slavery or child abduction to mean something, you have to revolve these things around something that is relatable and sympathetic. Southpaw only understands the dark visceral scenes in these films and then it decides to play that stuff on repeat for two hours instead of featuring any of the other stuff that made those films so great.
His name isn’t the only thing about him that feels hacky. Rid of the nuance and intensity of Gyllenhaal’s performance, Billy Hope is about as unrelatable as protagonists go. As I mentioned above, Hope is a punching bag (pun totally intended) who’s just there to get beaten up by life so that the audience can cry. Besides these loud and jarring moments, we never see any charm or evolution in him as he moves on. The movie tells us that we’re supposed to be watching this big transition but the movie presented his change and his backstory with so little authenticity that it’s challenging to feel any sense to root for him in the final fight. Forrest Whitaker plays the stereotypical coach whose a washed up eccentric with a heart of gold and Rachel McAdams is the wise, angelic wife whose just there to die in the first quarter of the film. Miguel is nothing more than a one note 80’s style jock character who’s given nothing. You’ve seen these characters hundreds of times before and the movie gives you no reason to see this as anything bigger than that.
Hope’s daughter Leila takes the cake though for the most contrived character. I would call the films attempts to make her look like anything more than an object to emotionally manipulate the audience pathetic but they’re frankly non-existent. I dare you to find one scene in the film where she isn’t being used painfully obviously to cry or scream or basically be the films equivalent of blatantly punching you to get a feeling out of you. There is this scene in the film where Leila tells her father that she wishes he’d died instead of her mother just because he doesn’t want her to watch a fight he’s going to be doing. It’s such an out of place moment that perfectly captures the forced grittiness of the film and the shamefully emotionless manipulation done through the daughter that I couldn’t help but openly laugh in my theater. I can see how one of the moments with her could work if it was mixed with some points of humor or at least normality with the character but if every scene is her slapping her father or praying at her mom’s grave it all ends up feeling like this shameless joke. In a film of forced, uninspired aspects, the father-daughter relationship was by far the worst.
The film so far seems like the worst drama you could end up watching and you may be wondering why I’m not going any lower with the score. The easy answer to that is that for some inexplicable reason, a set of amazing actors took a look at this script and decided it would be a great idea. Jake Gyllenhaal has quickly proven himself to be one of the best actors working in cinema today. His part in Nightcrawler should be remembered for decades to come. For a bland as the character is, Gyllenhaal gives the part everything he can give it in one of the best performances of the year so far. He takes his nothing part and he breathes life into it and makes Billy Hope feel like a real person for a few moments. The scene where he is reacting to his wife’s death is a little devastating mostly because of how much passion he has. For what it’s worth, this movie at least proves that at this point Jake Gyllenhaal can add heart to even the worst films.
In a film where he also didn’t have to try very hard, Forest Whitaker is also really impressive and he manages to make the trainer to Billy Hope the most well rounded person in the film. I’ve seen Whitaker half ass it in some recent films so it’s pleasantly surprising to see him taking this weak part and making the most out of it rather than simply not giving anything when it’s an uninteresting part. Mostly due to their talent, the moments between Whitaker and Gyllenhaal are hands down the best moments in the film because they’re the scenes where the film feels the most sincere because they’re being carried by the talent of the actors.
As is, Southpaw is bad on almost every level in terms of how to write a screenplay. This film is scene after scene of stock, melodramatic moments that feel cheap and insincere. The movie is a joke otherwise saved by the talents of the actors on board and it should have no problem being quickly forgotten. I’m happy to say we have found this year’s first Oscar failure.
Release Date: 7/24/2015
Directed by: Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay by: Kurt Sutter