Folks who say that films "transport" them must feel like they can't get out of Boston. It made for a pleasant sojourn 12 years ago, with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting. But recently, the city has become inescapable. There was Mystic River in 2003, then, accompanied by the same, omnipresent Boston accent, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, Fever Pitch, Shutter Island, The Town, and, opening Friday, The Fighter and Company Men. These films have won awards at a rate that, until recently, would have been slightly scandalous for a city that has always relished defeat. The Fighter figures to be no exception: I'll eat a Yankees cap if Christian Bale or Melissa Leo don't win an Academy Award for their supporting roles.
Their wins will be deserved because their performances are terrific. But despite The Fighter's many charms, it's hard not to suffer from a bit of Boston fatigue. ( The Fighter actually takes place a few miles upstate in Lowell, but I promise you won't be able to tell the difference.) The setting is now as recognizable as Woody Allen's Manhattan: three-decker homes, dimly lit corner bars, long shots of Fenway Park. I knew I had had enough of Boston when I reached the masturbatory climax of The Town, when the film's bank-robber heroes actually plunder Fenway. Among The Fighter's virtues is the absence of a single reference to the ballpark or its tenants.
"If you're looking for gritty authenticity in a modern setting, you come to Boston now," says decorated Boston Globe writer Charles Pierce. Of the recent films, Good Will Hunting was first to display the charisma of the fast-talking, rough-and-tumble kid from Southie. But in that film, South Boston was a dead-end place to be escaped. Will, for all his street smarts, had almost nothing in the way of world experience, and the movie ends with the "boy genius from Southie" moving to California in order to find it.
The newer Boston films—few of which share Good Will Hunting's mirth—typically portray these neighborhoods not as places to escape from, but ungentrified urban shrines to be protected. Their inhabitants are an endangered species. "The yuppies are coming," a cop complains in Mystic River, like a 21st-century Paul Revere. They certainly won't love and fuck and fight each other with the intensity of Sean Penn's character, a man so in touch with his masculinity that he can both cry and kill.
Mind you, gentrification is not the subject of any of these films. The specter of the yuppie is simply raised from time to time to remind the viewer of the "real" Bostonians' essential qualities. Nowhere is this clearer than a scene in The Fighter where Mark Wahlberg, playing boxer Micky Ward, takes Amy Adams to a French film at a theater in a fancy part of town. As they wait in line, an effete man with owlish glasses and a cardigan on his shoulders proclaims, "The cinematography's supposed to be gorgeous." (Might he have attended one of the local universities?) The contrast between the two men couldn't be clearer, though you suspect that the film's director, David O. Russell, an Amherst graduate, has more in common with the one he's mocking than the one he's lauding.
For all these films' adulation of their subjects, you suspect that what's really being staged is an elaborate display of Hollywood self-hatred
Russell's scene reveals more, perhaps, than he intended. For all these films' adulation of their subjects, you suspect that what's really being staged is an elaborate display of Hollywood self-hatred. Boston's famous Irish-Catholic neighborhoods allow filmmakers to celebrate admirable qualities in which Hollywood is notably lacking—authenticity, passion, grit. (Bostonians are to the 2000s what Italian-American mobsters were to an earlier era of movies.) Blue-collar Boston, the directors believe, brings you close to some core human experience. Look at The Departed: Leonardo DiCaprio's hero is a man who, despite a middle-class upbringing, is able to put himself in prison and then slum it as an undercover cop in South Boston. Matt Damon's villain, meanwhile, has lost touch with his Southie roots, trading them in for a luxury apartment. DiCaprio, of course, shags Damon's girlfriend: Who can resist his Southie charms? Certainly not Martin Scorsese.
If Hollywood took a break from giving these films awards, it might want to ask itself: Why Boston? Sure, it oozes with authenticity and grit, but so does, say, Newark.
"It's that Boston cracker shit," says comedian Patrice O'Neal, who grew up in Roxbury. "It's a bunch of white boys pulling themselves up by the boot straps."
In other words, you'd be hard-pressed to squeeze Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and Martin Sheen into a film set in Newark. Even the Boston working class you see on screen is largely unrepresentative; Boston, after all, is half non-white, and before Irish Catholics in South Boston were worrying about the onslaught of yuppies, they famously feared the arrival of blacks. In the hands of Hollywood, authenticity can sometimes be strangely inauthentic.
Ben Crair is the Deputy News Editor of The Daily Beast.