The line between epic drama and overwrought melodrama can be precariously thin. The Biblical story of Job has inspired countless people over the years, but a country song about a man whose girl done left him, whose job done fired him and whose dog just got run over by a train - well, that string of cliches is just as likely to produce sarcastic laughter as it is to produce emotional uplift.
The new boxing movie Southpaw is definitely aiming for epic, but it overshoots its ambitions. When we first meet Billy Hope he is happily married to a beautiful and supportive woman named Maureen, the world champion and a millionaire. But as soon as one piece is removed from his personal Jenga tower his entire life collapses. Once Maureen is hit by a random gunshot Billy loses his ability to focus in the ring and without that he loses his title to an unworthy challenger, and once his boxing career is put on hold he doesn't have enough money to stay ahead of his creditors. It even gets so bad for the broke and broken widower that he has to move back into the same dumpy projects where he was raised back when he was growing up as an orphan.
The rags to riches to rags to riches rollercoaster is fairly sturdy structure to base a sports movie on, but Southpaw pushes that dynamic past its breaking point. I have no problem with Billy losing his title; fighters regularly lose bouts. I can even understand the state coming in and declaring Billy an unfit parent; he got caught drinking and driving while he had an illegal firearm in the car. But the courtroom scene where a judge puts his daughter Leila into foster care had me going: really? In his ten years of success he never met a single person - literally, not even one - who would look after Leila for two months while he was trying to deal with an intense (and very public) trauma? That judge really believes that the best option for this pampered child who just lost her mother is to throw her into a bunk bed with a bunch of hard luck cases, not to try to track down some friend of the family and ask them to step up to the plate?
I understand that melodramas love to raise the stakes by imperiling adorable moppets, but there's no logical explanation for why Leila's storyline had to be so heavy handed. She could have had a complete emotional arc if she was merely dealing with the death of her mom and trying to keep her dad from falling apart. But no, Southpaw feels the need to pile on her nearly as much as it piles on Billy, which is an indefensible decision for a movie that is clearly building to a redemptive (and cliched) ending. It makes sense that Billy would feel more whole after regaining some of what he has lost, but how is Leila going to heal? Her mother isn't ever going to come back and she will always have been left to fend for herself at a very vulnerable time in her life. All of Leila's scenes inside the group home are not just implausible, they are also counterproductive to the rest of Southpaw's goals.
Although none of them are as galling as the Leila parts, many of Southpaw's other subplots are just as illogical. The "Billy gets his mojo back by training with an old wise gym trainer" storyline is forgiveable because it is just part of the formula, but I can't say that it makes a lot of sense. One look at Tig Willis' gym and you immediately know that he isn't a big-time guy, but he soon reveals that he is capable of teaching the former champ all the tricks of the trade that his former million-dollar trainers never did - like how to box defensively as well as offensively. (Apparently Billy's previous strategy was to take every single punch that was thrown his way; how you get to a 43-0 record without ever blocking escapes me, but then again I am not a boxing expert.) At the end of the day I can stomach Tig - of course a boxing movie is going to have a magic coach and a training montage - but that doesn't mean that I'm going to overlook how silly it is for a never-was to teach a has-been moves that he should have learned ten years ago.
I will give Southpaw this: it commits to its overwrought plot with heart and soul. In particular, Jake Gyllenhaal is fully committed to his performance as Billy Hope. He certainly looks the part; I don't know how much work he had to do to turn his body into a boxer's body but that can't have been easy. More importantly, he never condescends to the material and he plays it as straight as possible even when it is completely cliched. His honest performance is Southpaw's most redeeming facet.
That said, you still have to take his presence with a grain of salt. Gyllenhaal certainly has the sad eyes to be believable in Billy's most depressing moments, but he lacks the emotional explosiveness that marks a professional boxer. You never get the sense that he's the sort of person who solves problems with his fists; he'd rather blame himself than hit other people. All the scenes of him being a sweetheart to his family are great, but he is supposed to be a man who inflicts brain damage on strangers for money, and Southpaw doesn't nail the balance between those two extremes. All of the fight scenes are staged competently, but what we see in the ring doesn't necessarily jibe with what we've seen of him at home.
A few years ago a scientific study was conducted to find the saddest movie scene of all time. It ended up being from a made for tv movie about a boxer who is beaten to death in the ring in front of his child. That scene touches on all of the things that traumatize us - physical death, emotional loss, a sacrifice of innocence. Southpaw tries very hard to be a movie length version of that clip. In fact, it tries too hard, and it overshoots Biblical loss and ends up feeling cartoony. And while I can tolerate a certain amount of over-the-top melodrama, I don't have the patience to sit through more than two hours of it. Billy Hope might enjoy getting pummeled over and over again, but me? I have better things to do.