The boxer of Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer is no Jake LaMotta. Thin with wrinkly skin and short white hair, Ushio Shinohara attaches paint-soaked sponges to the fists of boxing gloves and slams them against large canvases. The end result is expressionism reminiscent of Jackson Pollock, but sparser in its force and sense of activity. This series of paintings, along with his neo-Dadaist cardboard sculptures, made him something of an art star when he arrived in New York City in 1969, but now at 80, life as an artist is less glamorous and even less fiscally rewarding. His idea of pugilism as artistic method now doubles as a coincidental allegory for the life of a struggling artist, and has gained further depth and meaning with age.
As the title suggests, however, Ushio is of less concern to Heinzerling than his better half, Noriko, a talented painter who uses her paintings to depict her life with Ushio; her avatar in the paintings is Cutie, while Ushio's takes the name of Bullie. The director, working with digital animation house Artjail, brings her drawings to life occasionally, a tactic meant to put more emphasis on her life view, but one that feels like a hollow attempt to add some aesthetic zest to the film, which is made up largely of interviews with Ushio and Noriko and footage of them at work or home. Pictures, home videos, and documentary footage of Ushio from his early years in New York help to give more detail to their romance and life together, the biggest woe of which being Ushio's once-raging, now-vanquished alcoholism.
Heinzerling favors the intimate story, that of two artists in a long, committed, but damaging relationship where Noriko felt stilted as an artist and burdened by essentially becoming Ushio's assistant, and he turned a blind eye to her suffering. She's openly bitter in many sequences, and the film goes about quantifying her long-gestating emotions, which it does exceedingly well. There's a constant sense of how exhausting life with Ushio is. In fact, a short sequence toward the middle of the film perfectly encapsulates the concurrent excitement and frustration of living with a praised artist's ego, wherein Ushio spontaneously decides to make a tasteless meal of celery and ground beef without even thinking. Ushio is lively and comic as he cooks, but he also is wasting budgeted food on a whim. Noriko's selflessness and sacrifices are clear, but the director harps on her plights to the point where he nearly makes a pop martyr out of her.
Questions of money and fleeting reputation balance out Heinzerling's somewhat repetitive fixation on the troubles of Noriko and Ushio's marriage, but there's more than one instance in the film where it feels like the filmmakers, if not necessarily the subjects, are stopping at the water's edge. Heinzerling is only passingly interested in exploring how Ushio's alcoholism has been passed down to their only child, Alex. And a videotaped drunken meltdown offers a shrill, self-serving, though intensely sincere case for the pain of being an artist, but the film never fully dives into his life as an artist living off his work. Indeed, there's scant evidence shown of Ushio's public life, his fame, and his renown, either here or in his native Japan, to help fully understand how a personality as graceful in its force as Noriko's could be eclipsed for so long. Cutie and the Boxer is funny, moving, honest, and occasionally inspiring, but as a portrait of a talent emerging from the shadow of a more public talent, the scale of the shadow is curiously omitted.