Cutie” is a character from artist Noriko Shinohara’s series of comic book-style drawings tracing the story of a woman in the thrall of her domineering drunk of a husband. “The Boxer” is Noriko’s own husband, Ushio, who — among his many other fascinating methods of creating art — punches paint-filled boxing gloves into giant canvases to produce abstract works of energetic power; Ushio also bears a striking resemblance to Cutie’s spouse. This utterly captivating documentary about the New York City couple, the feature debut of filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling, misleads you at first into thinking it’s going to be a portrait of 80-year-old Ushio, who is renowned for his “action paintings” and his enormous cardboard sculptures and yet is also almost the definition of a starving artist: he can’t find buyers for his famous work. Instead, we are treated to a sly, subversive version of an all-too-familiar story of a woman with brains and talent who has gotten steamrollered by a man who rendered himself helpless the moment there was someone else around to take care of him. We know that Ushio is arrogant enough to believe that their relationship is a matter of “the average one… support[ing] the genius.” But has he ever realized that he has enjoyed certain luxuries as an artist — he has a cook, cleaner, personal assistant, and accountant in his wife — that she has not? Cantankerous he may be, but we are captured by the same wicked charm that worked its spell on Noriko, and it’s plain that their 40-year-relationship has been rewarding for both of them. But now it’s time for Noriko — 22 years younger than Ushio, and clearly still with lots to say and do for herself — to reassert the artistic urges that got subsumed by Ushio needs. “Art is a demon,” he complains, but for Noriko, it seems an angel giving her wings.
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