3 out of 5
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Ut, well, my lack of reviewerly bonafides are hereby exposed: I found Raging Bull to be exceedingly average. I found the editing to be oddly stilted at points; I found De Niro’s performance to be unconvincing. It’s true that I’m not well versed in Scorsese’s oeuvre, though I’ve picked and chosen films along his timeline to certainly sell me on his craft and vision, and for whatever reason, I just didn’t get that here. It may have been a very superficial thing, at first: I couldn’t get over that prosthetic nose; but as the film went on, it was more than that, feeling too much like De Niro was ‘acting’ – versus very fluid performance from Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty – and that Scorsese was trying to hammer meaning out of the meaningless with patience, but, to me, to little avail.
Is it a good film? It’s a good film. It’s engaging, despite our focus, boxer Jake LaMotta, being an uninteresting lump of toxicity, and once the movie warms up – I do think that part of my issue with it is that it assumes our interest in LaMotta – the way Scorsese intercuts familial woes with in the ring antics makes the parallels he (and the script, from Paul Schrader and others) more impactful, if still kinda shallow.
Raging Bull covers a periodic rise and kinda-sorta fall of middleweight boxer LaMotta, who was also a frequent wife beater, generally easy to anger, and flirted with mob connections that ran through the sport in the 1940s setting. We’re bookended with a retired Jake, now quite overweight and telling jokes to little laughter, foreshadowing Boogie Nights (and plenty of other films, for sure) with an end-of-the-movie mirror assessment where it’s clear not much has been learned in the past however many years. Inbetween this, Jake’s first wife is yelled at and then never seen again; Jake flirts with then-15 year old Vickie (Moriarty); Jake asks his brother / manager Joey (Pesci) to get him shots at the title; lots of ‘fucks’ and ‘fag’ words are tossed around.
Yes, syncing with Ebert’s – a big fan of the film – review from back in the day, the course of the movie is a study of a man’s insecurities. Jake harps on Vickie for even the suggestion of flirtation – a passing mention of another boxer being pretty – and then allows his opponents in the ring to wail on him before unleashing his fury. Unseen (until later in the film) but spoken of are the frequent beatings he’s given Vickie; as time passes, which is utterly skipped over in the movie except for titles showing us the date, kids and marriage haven’t mellowed Jake in the slightest, and Scorsese sits back to show us his unfiltered behavior around his children.
In other Scorsese films that I’ve seen, and represented here as well, he doesn’t sit in judgement of these fractured types; although I wasn’t necessarily sold on De Niro sinking into this role (despite his method weight gain for the out-of-shape version of LaMotta), he’s in line with that, not giving his performance cues that make Jake wholly evil or in any way sympathetic. He’s a lug; this is how he is.
Opposite him – Pesci, Moriarty – we get perhaps similarly fractured types, but with shades of emotion behind their eyes. Pesci plays into the tough guy b.s. that seemingly ran in the LaMotta clan, but there’s a struggle there to try to tamp it down; Moriarty enjoys the attention from Jake (when it’s positive), but we see when the line has been crossed and all she wants is escape.
But what’s missing from the film is all the connective stuff to help bring more life to it. The aforementioned lack of feeling like time has actually passed; the way the first half or so of the film just shuffles rather herky-jerk from day-to-day LaMotta bitching to fight scenes without any real sense of consequence; New York – and LaMotta’s family – never really seem to exist; and I’m not even sure why the mob angle was worked in, as it’s shushed very much to the background, and when it comes up as affecting a single fight, it just seems like a required biographical detail to slip in.
It’s interesting hearing classic speeches and lines I know in the context of their source. I’ll always have to wonder if a more timely viewing would have registered this as a classic for me, but none of the themes or its execution feel wildly original, even for 1980.