Meg Ryan is going through a change of professional life. Fifteen years ago, in her late 20s, she broke out as a leading romantic comedian in When Harry Met Sally and established herself as the bubbly and blond heir apparent to the aptly named Goldie Hawn. But dewy, peaches-and-cream, all-American cuteness seems to dry up and go bad well before the age of 40. What’s an aging girl to do in Tinseltown? While Hollywood allows its leading men like Harrison Ford and Sean Connery to work well past an age when they could draw Social Security benefits, the stardom of most leading women begins to wane as the number of candles on their birthday cakes wax. Many find themselves cast into an early semi-retirement of playing supporting characters: wives, mothers or what used to be called “old maids.” Ryan, like Hawn, has held on to starring parts that defy those usually won by women over the age of 35 (apparently over-the-hill in Hollywood).
That brings us to Ryan’s latest film, Against the Ropes, a mostly flat and problematic drama that offers a few moments of comedy, romance and interracial tension. The story is based on the career of boxing’s most successful female manager, Jackie Kallen, an enigmatic Detroit female boxing promoter.
Against the Ropes seems as though it will follow the plot line of Norma Rae (1979) and Erin Brockovich (2000) with a blue-collar heroine winning against all odds. In the end, it doesn’t.
Screenwriter Cheryl Edwards (Save the Last Dance) turns Against the Ropes into badly written melodrama from the start with Jackie as a little girl hanging out at ringside with her father, a boxing trainer, and her uncle, a boxer. Uncle Ray Ray calls her a pearl and tells her, “Pearls are pretty and they’re tough. And pretty tough can do anything.” If a boxer wrote sentimental affirmations for Hallmark cards, this could be one.
Ryan’s Jackie is pretty and tough. But she finds herself in a dead-end job as an unappreciated gal Friday for her reptilian boss, Irving Abel (Joseph Cortese). The villainous Larocca (Tony Shalhoub), a mob-connected boxing manager, unwittingly gives Jackie a fairy tale opportunity when he demands that she put her money where her big mouth is: He sells her one of his boxers for a dollar in order to give her enough rope to hang herself since he believes a woman could never succeed in the fight game.
But Jackie proves that she can do almost anything — except open herself up to relationships or curb her ambition and latent racism. Her failings and the film’s romantic flirtations are occasionally interesting. But unlike Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich, Jackie isn’t a true heroine: She’s mostly in it for herself, not for some noble cause. Along the way, when she isn’t exploiting her black boxer, Luther Shaw (Omar Epps), she’s treating him like a child.
At the age of 42, a leaner, meaner, tougher and rougher Ryan’s come a long way from When Harry Met Sally’s good girl. But neither she nor Epps can overcome the weaknesses of Against the Ropes’ script.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.