All he wanted to do was skip out of work early, make a fancy poster and charm his way back into his ex-girlfriend’s life as she crossed the finish line at the Boston Marathon. If, of course, he can avoid his usual distractions — Boston sports, drinking with his buddies, oblivious to what time it is.
All she wanted was to get on with her life, starting with moving on from this lovable but commitment-phobic, self-involved lump and his abrasive, smoking, drinking, F-bomb as a noun/verb/adjective and adverb cliche of a working class family. The Marathon represented just that sort of fresh start to Erin Hurley.
But not this April 15, and not this Boston Marathon. This was 2013, and two radicalized social misfits set off bombs that took away Jeff Bauman’s legs. “Stronger” is not about that tragedy, but about its aftermath — the stumbling recovery, the self-pity, the loving but enabling and frankly loutish family and the impact it has on a broken relationship, the guilt, regret and arc these two real-people’s lives tracked in the months and years after Mark Wahlberg single-handedly cracked the case of that “Patriots Day” bombing four years ago.
Jake Gyllenhaal has the showy role, that of happy-go-lucky Jeff, just charming and good-looking enough that he figures he can win Erin (Tatiana Maslany) back with The Big Gesture. If only he can stay focused on it long enough to get to that finish line ahead of her. With his hard-drinking “Sawks/Bruins/Patriots/Celts” rooting pals, and his chain-smoking harridan of a mother (Miranda Richardson), that’s going to be a near-run thing.
Maslany, of TV’s “Orphan Black,” has the subtler role and turns it into a heart-breaking performance. Erin may show up at Jeff’s favorite bar and let him gregariously pass the hat to raise money for the charity she’s to run on behalf of. He has that way with people.
But she’s got low expectations for him keeping his latest unsolicited promise — that he’ll be there to cheer her across the line at the finish. And from the moment she hears the blast, Maslany lets you see the fear — “Surely THIS one time he didn’t actually show up?” She lets us feel the grief, the guilt once she realizes yes, he was only there because of her.
And as his loud, foul-mouthed family rallies to his side but shuns her, rails at doctors and generally amps up the chaos at the hospital on that fateful day, Maslany gives us a peek at what grim resignation looks like. She’s not free to move on, free to escape this mob. She bears some responsibility. So this is her future, a trap laid by two punks named Tsarnaev.
Director David Gordon Green, far removed from the indie sensibilities of “All the Real Girls” and “Joe,” just as far from his “Pineapple Express” stoner comedy comfort zone, brings out both the humor and the pathos in this intimate and circuitous story of two people who fell out of love — and yet are forced back together by necessity (he lost his legs), responsibility and guilt.
The movie’s journey has just enough room for growth to sneak into Jeff’s world and his family (Clancy Brown is his raging-at-the-world dad). It may be generic and inspiring TV movie subject matter, but Green immerses us in this world and punches up the limited horizons that face these characters, even as Jeff becomes something he’s not suited for — an icon for “Boston Strong,” the city’s post-bombing image.
A nice subtext — the script highlights the humane capitalism of wholesaler Costco. Jeff may be just a meat-cutter in the discount store’s deli, but his homophobic family is in for a shock when they start in on his gay boss (Danny McCarthy) for showing up at the hospital because they’re sure he will lay Jeff off.
“We’re not letting him go,” he says, silencing the torrent of F-bombs, if only for a moment. He’s just here to let them know, “Jeffrey has insurance.”
The great Gyllenhaal brilliantly fleshes out a Boston “type,” letting us see Jeff’s limited vocabulary and big heart, his fragility, but also his impulse-control unsuitability as boyfriend material. Self-pity figures into it, and old habits (booze and Bruins games). They give Oscars to actors who vividly recreate real people with great handicaps — physical and emotional — to overcome.
And they pass out Academy Awards to actresses who fearlessly grab hold of abrasive, broken and hatefully self-involved and self-destructive mother figures and play the hell out of them, the way Richardson does here.
But if there’s justice, the Academy will also remember Tatiana Maslany’s heart-breaking turn as a woman who was taking stock, moving on and re-planning her life, when life blew up — literally — in her face, not just Jeff’s.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown
Credits: Directed by David Gordon Green, script by John Pollono, based on Jeff Bauman’s autobiography, co-written by Brett Witter. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:56