A solid, if unspectacular, member of the physically-and-psychologically battered fighter genre, John Huston’s late-career entry, Fat City is most notable for terrific performances all around, especially those of Stacy Keach (Tully, an attention-starved ex-boxer who now tries to influence everyone he meets in some way) and Susan Tyrell (as Faye, a perpetually drunk, whiny barfly who churns through husbands & lovers of all ethnicities and backgrounds). It’s also a trip to see a baby-faced Jeff Bridges (as Ernie) of The Big Lebowski fame in one of his first major roles as a lanky, wide-eyed kid (un)fortunate enough to have a chance encounter with Tully while messing around in the gym. Every time Bridges opens his mouth, especially when he says, “man” or something similar, it’s difficult to get The Dude out of sight or mind. Nevertheless, he’s also superb, and the actors help Fat City rise above mediocrity.
The story is fairly typical—Tully, who’s long past his prime, dead broke, and a heavy drinker, is at a crossroads in life just prior to his 30th birthday. His chance meetings with Ernie and Faye, as well as a reconnection with his former manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto), inspire him to try to get back in the ring (despite pulling a muscle in his first workout in two years during his spar with Ernie), hoping to recapture that sense of purpose. Throughout Fat City, Tully is regularly drawn to those with whom he can stow a piece of himself. In Faye, he’s found someone even more fucked up than he, someone he can pour his frustrations into while emphasizing, both inwardly and outwardly, his ‘strong points’ (“I’ve never hit a woman in my life”). Hey, at least he’s not in JAIL like her (most recent) ex-husband Earl, right? With Ernie, a clean-cut, good-looking cherub who doesn’t drink, Tully can channel his anger at himself for throwing a potentially promising career down the toilet, and make himself feel better by pulling for Ernie, though he undoubtedly realizes that Ernie—while tall, athletic, and owner of a good reach—isn’t really a first-rate prospect. A part of Tully undoubtedly wants to see Ernie fail, thus spreading some of his misery around (the ending makes it clear he’s unsuccessful at this, despite Ernie’s so-so results in the ring). And Tully’s penchant for living through others is mirrored by the 60-something Ruben’s trainees, a rag-tag group without much luck. It’s clear that Ruben cares less about winning and more about mentoring and being a father figure to whoever pops in the door. Is it any wonder that Tully and Ruben have maintained a relationship for a long time? They’re two peas in a pod, prime examples of failures who mask their unhappiness with faux-friendliness.
The big problem with Fat City is that there’s no emotional arc. Tully’s ultimate fate—that he’s too far gone to be rescued by one ‘final fight,’ regardless of the result—seems pre-ordained after the first ten minutes, and nothing substantive happens during the rest of the film to alter this perspective. If Fat City were directed by Robert Bresson, that would be fine, but it’s not; Huston is at the helm, and he’s far less comfortable making one-note seem otherwise. Huston fares a bit better with Ernie’s character, but not enough to make Fat City anything more than a workmanlike effort. Faye is also somewhat of a caricature, though Tyrell’s performance (frequently hysterical, in both connotations of the word) makes that less of an issue. The potential for a much richer film is here, but instead, audiences will be forced to settle for a minor work from an excellent director. Luckily, secondary pictures from talented filmmakers still have merit (usually), and Fat City certainly has enough of that to be worthwhile viewing.