Like Stories We Tell, Cutie and The Boxer tries to buck genre. It just doesn’t do it as well.
This one aims to be character-study, drama, even rom-com. At times, it succeeds. At others, it doesn’t.
From the beginning, Director Zachary Heinzerling paints Noriko Shinohara as more sympathetic than her husband, Ushio. Heinzerling doesn’t villainize Ushio, certainly, but he does follow and define Noriko more. On the one hand, the strategy works, as it makes us care about Noriko, makes us cheer for her eventual triumph and independence.
The strategy also hurts the film. Heinzerling seems to argue that long-suffering Noriko’s endurance has saved her marriage, even as her husband, Ushio, has unwittingly tried to destroy it for some forty years. Now, it may or may not be true that Noriko has worked harder than her husband on their marriage. The point is I don’t know, because the film never defines Ushio with the same care it defines his wife. We do not understand the husband, a fact that limits the movie’s lessons about successful long term relationships.
Why? Because relationships are partnerships, and rarely succeed without both partners’ efforts. If I understood Ushio better, I would have better understood the Shinohara’s marriage, which in turn means the film’s lessons about lengthy relationships would have resonated with more truth.
In other words, I wish the film had also given me Ushio’s interpretation of his marriage, both by looking at his past and by giving him opportunity to reflect on the life he’s shared with his younger bride.
While it stumbles as an analysis of marriage, the documentary works as an ivestigation of artists’ lives. Here it is balanced, showing Ushio’s struggle with the same care it shows Noriko’s. And even offering limited perspective on their sons’ experiences. We feel the anxiety, desperation and hope that confront every artist.
I love the way Heinzerling films Noriko and Ushio as they work. He views their efforts with tight angles and mostly stationary cameras, thereby producing intimacy that makes us feel the subjects’ raw emotion.
I question, however, Heinzerling’s almost haphazard inclusion of Alex, the Shinoharo’s son. The first time we see him, Alex hasn’t yet been introduced and we don’t know who he is. He’s just an awkward observer who seemingly doesn’t belong in an important scene. The second time we see Alex, we hear his parents discuss his alcoholism, and the third time he shares his paintings with Noriko and us. Then he occasionally drifts in and out of the movie, never receiving much individual treatment. Because Alex is portrayed inconsistently, we do not understand him, or his emotional import to his parents.
Many moments in Cutie and The Boxer feel contrived, like they exist only because the director asked his subjects to perform for his camera, something that is especially true of the boxing match that runs behind the end credits. These contrivances make me question, at times, whether or not the subjects’ emotion is genuine.
In the end, Cutie and The Boxer makes many interesting observations about artists’ lifestyles, but it stumbles in its analysis of long term relationships and families. Given that the two themes are equally important to it, the latter is a significant flaw.