Levy Anatomy: Mann’s Biopic Ali–Commercial Flop

The commercial failure of Ali, one of the year’s most eagerly-awaited films, is a top-held secret in Hollywood, a disappointment that industryites are ill-at-ease even talking about. Considering its production budget of more $100 million, Ali has vastly underperformed at the box-office, grossing todate less than $60 million. The Oscar nominations last week confirmed the film’s inferior status, singling out only two achievements: lead actor for Will Smith and supporting actor for Jon Voight.

What went wrong?

You can’t blame Columbia’s marketing campaign, which began months before the film’s release and was effective in terms of awareness.

Nor can you blame the filmmaking itself, which is top-notch in all departments. Michael Mann is a consummate artist, known for its attention to detail and commitment to authenticity. The critical response was good too, with several reviewers placing Ali on their Ten Best Lists.

Rendering an impressive performance in a challenging role, Will Smith is a star whose constituency is multi-racial, a factor that was meant to broaden the picture’s commercial appeal but clearly didn’t.

No, the main reason for the flop was Columbia’s inability to position Ali as a must-see movie in the crowded holiday season, combined with its ineffectiveness in turning Ali into a genuine event movie (the way that both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings became, albeit for different reasons). More specifically, to understand Ali’s dissatisfying standing with the American public, one needs to examine the film’s narrative strategies, Mann’s thematic approach to the celebrity, and the zeitgeist dominating the American movie scene.

Centering on one crucial decade in Ali’s life, Mann views his subject from a rather detached perspective, as if hesitant to penetrate into his complex mind. After the film, young viewers who didn’t know the real Ali complained that he remains unknowable, an enigma. This feeling was reinforced by the quick, haphazard way that Ali dealt with its hero’s private and family life.

The movie takes a soft, almost benign approach to Ali, who was arguably wilder and crazier than the text is willing to admit. Indeed, Ali the movie fell victim to the traps of most biopictures, namely, the tendency to make their heroes holier than thou. A Coal Miner’s Daughter, with Sissy Spacek as country singer Loretta Lynn, and Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce, suffered from the same problem.

Ali, the century’s most famous celeb, is now a cultural icon cherished by all Americans. Issues that were controversial at the time, such as his stance toward the Vietnam War, are no longer divisive. Times have changed and even militant African-Americans will concede that the racism of the 1960s has declined, if not disappeared. Besides, the movie doesn’t really show how divisive Ali was, how inflammatory his remarks were. Ali’s conversion to Islam is no longer perceived as a provocative act. His relationship with the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X are handled in a mild-mannered way–Spike Lee’s coverage of the same events in Malcolm X is far more turbulent.

Impressive as Smith’s performance is, it lacks Ali’s irrepressible spontaneity, his cocky magnetism, problems that magnify the film’s struggle to recapture the essence of Ali’s genius. Moreover, the boxing scenes, despite Smith’s diligent work, don’t convey Ali’s speed and ferocity. Unlike Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Ali never shows what was special or unique about its hero’s fighting methods.

In an interview with American Cinematographer, Ali’s lenser Emmanuel Lubezki observed, “Many scenes take place during major historical events that everybody knows about. We did everything we could to make them feel as though they’re happening for the first time onscreen.” This may be true, but the great familiarity with the story might have posed the greatest obstacle to embracing the picture. Ali doesn’t tell the audience any significant event it doesn’t know. Hence, there was no urgent reason to see a movie that basically catalogued, albeit with great cinematic panache, the life of a man whose every word was covered by the media.