”The world’s an oyster and you’re a pearl,” young Jackie Kallen is told by her pugilist uncle, some 25 years before she grows up to be a trailblazing female fight manager. ”Pearls are pretty and they’re tough. Pretty tough can do anything.” This elliptical smidgen of nonwisdom comes only minutes into Against the Ropes, and would seem to herald a normal, inoffensively mediocre biopic spackled with populist Brockovichian spunk, i.e., fempowerment via slatternly outfits and thudding you-go-girl one-liners. But nothing, and I mean nothing, can prepare you for what comes next.
”The world is not an oyster!” the grown-up Kallen (Meg Ryan) gripes pointedly moments later. ”It’s a tank full of smelly water and sharks!” Smelly water? Um…you go, girl! Thus we enter the Valley of the Shadow of the Tortured Metaphor. When Kallen complains about her dead-end job as majordomo to the director of the Cleveland Coliseum, a pal advises her to ”Find an elevator, push some buttons!” – the sort of witty exhortation that naturally impels someone to become a gender warrior in a male-dominated sport. (The real Kallen, by the way, entered the boxing world via her PR firm – not exactly a rags-to-riches story.) Here, Kallen discovers a diamond-in-the-hood named Luther (Omar Epps), and the pair lock horns and stereotypes on their way to The Big Fight. The soothing presence of Charles S. Dutton, as trainer Felix Reynolds, is refreshing – if you can forgive him for directing this thing. (How could the helmer of HBO’s ”The Corner” so fatally mistake caricature for character?)
But there’s another epic battle raging – Ryan’s apparent struggle to stay upright. Now, I don’t know Jackie Kallen; never seen her, never heard her speak. For all I know, Ryan’s performance could be a dead-on Kallen impression. But what she appears to be doing is an impression of Johnny Depp doing an impression of Keith Richards doing an impression of Liz Taylor. Teetering in three-story heels and trussed in tragic hooker wear, Ryan slurs and sashays with an off-kilter deliberation that, sadly, will soon be legend. She does manage to build a great deal of sympathy – but not for Jackie Kallen.