Raging Bull (1980) is probably the most overrated movie of the last 50 years, from probably the most overrated director, Martin Scorsese. Admittedly, I’m a biased reviewer. (Who isn’t?) I don’t usually respond to movies about boxing, and in the last few years I’ve developed a real antipathy for films that are about men and men only, with only marginal roles for women in them. (When half of the population is women, and when there are so many good women who act, why are movies so man-centric?) That’s probably why the only thing I liked about Raging Bull was Cathy Moriarty’s performance. She plays the wife of the film’s subject, boxing legend Jake LaMotta, who’s played by Robert De Niro.
Movie-lovers often bemoan the fact that Robert Redford’s suburban-family-coming-apart-at-the-seams drama Ordinary People won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1980, beating the obviously artistically superior Raging Bull. I’ve bit my tongue until now because I hadn’t bothered to watch Raging Bull. Now that I have—an endurance test if ever there was one—I remain securely tethered to team Ordinary People, even if Raging Bull is cinematically superior. It’s incredibly well-made, technically speaking. The stark, naturalistic black-and-white camera-work and the editing are truly masterful.
But the film’s technical achievements do not change the fact that its subject matter and its execution are monumentally unsatisfying and truly disturbing. This is a film about the emptiness of a New York prizefighter who’s consumed with jealousy and reduced entirely to his physical powers in the boxing ring. He’s a piece of meat. There’s no depth to De Niro’s characterization. Pauline Kael (I’ve never been so happy to be in agreement with her on a movie) put it best when she argued in her review that Raging Bull is looking back to the films of Brando and Coppola, trying to top them. Movies that scratch and claw their way to greatness can sometimes be fascinating—especially if they fail—but Raging Bull’s quest for greatness works against it.
Beneath all the showy cinematography and the showy acting of Robert De Niro, there’s very little humanity. Critics have repeatedly used this argument against De Niro (most recently for The Wolf of Wall Street), but not necessarily for Raging Bull, perhaps because they’re convinced by its technical style and De Niro’s macho machinations that the film is a brilliant piece of art. What Martin Scorsese achieves is a really well-made film about terrible people, but the film’s seriousness and its grandiosity make it seem like we should find these people interesting, or redeeming, or worth our time in some way. But that’s not true about any of them except for Jake LaMotta’s wife, whom he beats up on, accuses of infidelity, and then woos back with sweet nothings in a constant vicious cycle. Watching self-destructive men beat up on their women just isn’t that gratifying, especially when the women don’t get to fight back much. (There is one scene where Moriarty stands up to him, but he socks her in the face, and not long after, she’s back with him and all is apparently forgiven. She does eventually leave him, but years later, and the dramatic effect of the act is underwhelming.)
Joe Pesci, as Jake’s brother and manager, is admittedly very good in his role. But like De Niro’s performance, the acting he does turns into a tired, repetitive schtick. He, just like LaMotta’s long-suffering wife, seems always to be coming back to his brother even when Jake abuses him physically and accuses Pesci of sleeping with his wife. (Jake LaMotta’s mood ring is a constant volcanic red, and his absurd jealousy becomes tiresome, maddening and eventually infuriating.) I don’t want to make definitive statements about movies, but in this case, I really do not have any desire to see a movie about these kinds of characters. (And again, boxing.)