Movie Review - Stronger (2017)
Jake Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tomorrow and Jarhead) stars as Jeff Bauman, an employee at a Costco warehouse who is 27 and lives with his single mother in Chelmsford, a town that could be considered a suburb of Boston. His ex-girlfriend Erin, played by Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), is running in the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. Jeff goes and waits for her at the finish line to support her. The finish line was the sight of the two bombs, and it's where Jeff lost both his legs.
What follows are things that we've seen before when it comes to movies about people who are sick or suffering from some illness or injury. After the explosion, Jeff wasn't in a coma but he was unconscious for the most part. Because Jeff was at the marathon to support her, Erin felt obligated to be at the hospital, despite being his ex-girlfriend. It was reminiscent of the recent The Big Sick. Yet, Maslany is a far better actor than Kumail Nanjiani who played the reticent ex in that film.
After Jeff wakes up, he has to deal with sudden fame and people thinking he's a hero when he doesn't feel as strong or as proud as everyone else in the Boston area, and especially when he feels he didn't do anything, despite helping police to identify one of the bombers. That fact isn't really accentuated at all. The movie proceeds as if he's just a survivor and that's it, which makes it a little if not totally dissimilar from how a lot of soldiers who come back after fighting in a war feel. They too can become a symbol to the public, a symbol to which the soldiers themselves feel they can't live up or of which they are not worthy.
Jeff is initially confined to a wheelchair. A friend or relative references a character from Forrest Gump (1994). Yet, when it comes to movies about men in wheelchairs, my mind went to Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July (1989) as well as Marlon Brando in The Men (1950), but Gyllenhaal's performance seems to waiver somewhere between the two but never any better than each, or else it's just the movie itself feeling so derivative that it as a whole is never better than each. Gyllenhaal is good at expressing the pain and the depression, but when he would have these bursts of anger or freak-outs as he does in an elevator and in Erin's car, it felt like an actor acting, or rather over-acting. He wasn't bad, but I was briefly taken out of the movie in those moments. It still doesn't clear the high bar he set in his one and only Oscar nomination, Brokeback Mountain (2005), which still remains Gyllenhaal's best work.
Speaking of which, what also took me out the movie was the gay slurs at the beginning. There are a lot of f-bombs dropped in this film. The f-bombs were not only of the four-letter kind but also of the anti-gay variety. Jeff does somewhat rebuke them but not to great effect and it's an issue that's never brought up again, so the question is why have it in the movie at all. Are we supposed to be endeared by Jeff's friends and their homophobic tendencies even in the year 2013? It would have been as offensive as the casual dropping of the N-word.
It doesn't help that there was a fantastic film about a gay man in a wheelchair that doesn't drop slurs about straight people. It was Michael D. Akers' Morgan (2012), a movie that's more about accepting one's limitations, as well as accepting the burdens put onto you due to your disability and the burden it puts onto those around you who love you. When it comes to that burden, this movie plays a lot of the same beats as in Morgan or as in The Theory of Everything (2014), except Maslany isn't positioned as strongly here as Felicity Jones was.
Unfortunately, I was thinking about the visual effects more in this movie than in Rust and Bone, which is a little bit of a bad thing. The movie somehow became more about that visual effect than Jeff's arc of going from man-child to more responsible adult. It's cliché that it took getting his girlfriend pregnant to start that ball rolling, which is probably the truth of the matter, given this is a true story, but it's still a rather predictable turn for the movie to make.
Rated R for language, graphic injuries and brief sexuality with nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.