Fat City (1972)

Directed by John Huston; Written by Leonard Gardner

A warm hand reaching across the bar with nicotine-stained fingers, Fat City has heart and enough empathy to see you through a despondent story of spiraling characters who can only hope for redemption in the people who give them a second chance. 

In the center, we have Stacy Keach as Tully, a one-time fighter who’s now battling alcoholism in the slipstream of his failed marriage. Sitting up in his single room apartment, glancing around the empty bottles and debris of a blown-up life, he decides to pack a bag and hit the Y, do a few laps, throw a few punches, just make a little use of the body God gave him. 

There he meets young Ernie who is boyish, happy, bouncy. They spar, and while it doesn’t take long for Tully’s lungs to throw in the towel, he says Ernie has promise, and sends him across town to his old gym to meet his old trainer. While Ernie slowly finds his feet in this new world, Tully just tries to stay on his own. 

Four years before Rocky lionized the guts-to-glory boxer, Fat City had the profession in the gutter, full of grinders already ground to dust or those heading that way fast and the world along with them. The streets stink, the squalid apartments stink, the threadbare gyms stink, the dressing rooms stink, and even the ring, the altar upon which they strive for fame and some measly bucks, is sweat-soaked and baked in cigarette smoke. Fine life, if you can get it. 

Yet, Fat City somehow, somehow, isn’t as depressing as it would seem. Yes, there are hard fates here (and most of them getting harder) but there exists a soft middle between people who know the struggle of the person next to them. People who don’t call in on debts, who should be heading home, but stays and talks a while; who has a smile to give when there should be none to be had. Times are lean, but it is, as the title goes, a fat city.

Gardner wrote the screenplay based on his own novel, and that means all the lyrical writer’s stuff is in there. The exchanges at sticky bar counters are full of drunken splendor, ringing out with that odd purity that sops let fall from wet lips, and to watch Tully strike up doomed friendships and romances is both comic and wistful. Fit for a day of being a (bar)fly on the wall. 

Director Huston leaves his real mark in the fighting scenes, which are long, and isn’t so much about who wins, but who loses the least. They slug, grapple, sweat, grunt and swing with ever-increasing desperation, until suddenly, pow! A punch fells them on the spot. Nice fight kid, you’ll get them next time, now stagger out into the night, worse for wear. 

Huston has much the same approach to the staggering drunks, however, and similar to how fighters cling to each other to stay upright, sometimes to protect themselves, so do the characters of Fat City, so committed and dependent are they on each other. Relationships become support systems, however tenuous, and Huston neither disparages nor glorifies the social strata. 

Tully’s a louse, a regretful drunk, but Huston and Gardner let him be him without much judgment. Alcoholism is a politicized illness now, fraught with opinions on the validity of it and people’s ability to shake it, but to see Tully, a man with some drive to improve himself, to offer comfort to other people, to just be someone to other people, fail so miserably and be so miserable, is wrenching, and you won’t convince anyone what plagues him isn’t an illness. 

A late-career feature for a legendary director, Fat City is an early feature role for Jeff Bridges as Ernie, appearing here one year removed from his breakthrough in The Last Picture Show. Clean-cut with his all-American smile, Bridges’ eager energy as an up-and-comer blends right into Ernie, yet he also shows flashes of that uncanny ability of his to evoke a wistful loss of innocence that makes you feel like you’re seeing a boy become a man in front of your eyes when his eyes suddenly darken, his brows firm up and his lips thin as he takes everything in. 

Fat City is not an elevated drama, but an intimate exploration of cruel working class fates that Huston doesn’t infuse with overflowing drama. An early montage shows the city crumbling around the ears of the run-down people who still remain in Stockton, the north Californian impasse of a city that the story takes place in. Once Huston’s shown us the world, he shrinks it and then focuses on Ernia and Tully’s trajectories, but the message has already come across. 

What’s left is a chronicle of contemporary life where flaws are allowed to exist without judgment, exaggeration, or melodrama, leaving plenty of humanity, plenty of wry smiles, and some introspective moments asking you to consider what’s to become of us all. 

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