One of John Huston's latter-day successes, Fat City is long on character and short on plot, but it's a crawl through the mud that'll stay in your psyche for days.
Reviewed by Jerry Renshaw, Fri., May 18, 2001
D: John Huston (1972); with Stacy Keach, Susan Tyrrell, Jeff Bridges, Candy Clark, Nicholas Colasanto.
Everybody dreams about Fat City; they may not call it that, but it's still always the same place. It's the place where the steaks are thick, the bankrolls are fat, the women are beautiful and willing, the cars always have full gas tanks, and the beer's never flat or warm. It's not some millionaire's mansion and stock portfolio; it's just a place where the living is good and things are comfortable. That's not where Tully (Keach) lives, though. For him, Stockton, Calif., is more like Loserville than Fat City. Tully's a 29-year-old boxer with his glory days long past, a punch-drunk drunk, a has-been who maybe never was to begin with. Out of shape and crawling out of one bottle and into another, he spends his days toiling with the migrants, picking walnuts, digging turnips, hoeing weeds, or taking whatever comes along when he's not holed up in some grimy Stockton bar. Oma (Tyrrell) is part of "whatever comes along" -- she's one of those mercurial drunks who'll shift from being your best friend to wanting to slit your throat in a matter of minutes. They both have their histories: Tully never recovered from his wife leaving him, and Oma's husband was a cop killed on duty. The two lost souls fall sloppily in with each other, for better or worse (mainly for worse). Still, Tully dreams of a way out. He befriends Ernie (Bridges), a naive but talented 18-year-old boxer, and hooks up with manager/trainer Ruben (Colasanto, aka Coach from Cheers). He trains for the big fight that he hopes will make him a serious contender again, meanwhile hanging out in bars and hoeing weeds in the California sun. John Huston's storied career was notably uneven from the 1960s on, but Fat City was one of his latter-day triumphs, due in large part to the moody cinematography of Conrad Hall. Hall (whose résumé includes In Cold Blood, Electra Glide in Blue, and American Beauty) used dim lighting and a muted palette of colors to bring the whiskey stink of Tully's skid row hotel and dive-bar haunts right into your living room. Hall's camera work sets the wretched tone for every scene. Keach is excellent as the ruined prizefighter adrift in an endless sea of misery and booze; years of the bottle have stripped away his dignity like paint remover on a car hood. The movie's climactic fight scene is as raw and brutal as a do-it-yourself root canal, with few fight-movie histrionics to be found. Keach's heavy-lidded, slack-jawed zombie stare shows him operating on autopilot and kill instinct in the ring. Bridges is earnest and good-natured as the up-and-comer (as his young wife, Clark is little more than window dressing), but Susan Tyrrell steals every scene she is in. Looking for all the world like a broken-down Shirley MacLaine, she's a tormented drunk who makes everyone around her as miserable as she is. The scene in which she proposes a toast to Tully in a bar (followed by a scene in which the two of them stumble out into blinding Stockton daylight) has an indescribable sense of tragedy, as the two down-and-outers cast their crappy fortunes together. Later, Tully prepares dinner in her apartment (canned peas and pan-fried pork chops), then patiently tries to convince Oma to eat. Her sheer nastiness would leave most people stifling the urge to take the dinner plate and break it over her head. Tyrrell was an underappreciated actress, but her bitterly forceful performance in Fat City brought her a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Adapted from the Leonard Gardner novel, Fat City is long on character and short on plot (at times nearly playing like a Cassavettes film), but it's a crawl through the mud that'll stay in your psyche for days. Looking at the world through a shot glass, Fat City makes the Bukowski atmosphere of Barfly seem like some elegant Noël Coward romp. Watch for Huston himself as a stumbling skid-row bum in the movie's opening segments.