January 21, 2009

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke impersonates his recent career trajectory

Grade: A
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

In The Wrestler, a down and out bum grasps for one more shot at glory. The seemingly small but significant difference between director Darren Aronofsky’s new film and similarly situated films like The Champ, Rocky, and Cinderella Man is that boxing carries an esteem that professional wrestling lacks. Boxing is known as the "sweet science," fought under the "Marquis of Queensbury" rules, and popularized by culturally and politically transcendent figures such as Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali.

By contrast, the most prevalent remark made about pro wrestling is, "You know it's fake." It is popular among its rabid devotees; otherwise, it carries a stigma of being silly, trashy, and degrading. Some call the spectacle a "soap opera for men,” but perhaps the better label is "performance art.” The stagecraft in pro wrestling is predetermined, and the characters and storylines are written and choreographed for the viewers' pleasure. There is another vocation that also fits this description: Acting.

The Wrestler is foremost a character study of an aging grappler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, played with raw authenticity by Mickey Rourke. However, under Aronofsky’s brilliant direction, the film itself becomes its own kind of performance art with a connecting thread that weaves the subject-matter, plot, characters, and actors into a seamless tapestry.

Aronofsky's prestige as a director was already cemented after the release of his 2000 tour de force, Requiem for a Dream. For The Wrestler, Aronofsky dials back his trademark visual flourishes for a gritty depiction of loss: of youth, fame, family, and, yes, dreams. Once the most popular wrestler in the country, Randy is now a relic living in near-poverty who spends his workweek stocking shelves at a grocery store in his rural Jersey hometown. Whereas Randy once fought before sold-out audiences in Madison Square Garden, he now spends his weekends scrapping for scratch at local armories and high school gyms.

After an especially brutal match accompanied by glass shards, metal staples, and barbed wire, Randy suffers a heart attack that forces him to hang up his tights and cancel an upcoming rematch against his former MSG foe, the Ayatollah (real name Bob, now a used car salesman). Facing a new reality, Randy attempts to advance his relationship with a local stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), and reconnect with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).

The real-life parallels between character and actor are striking and likely intentional. Aronofsky risked cancellation of this film project with his insistence on casting Rourke, because producers and financiers were reluctant to invest in the notoriously tempestuous and evidently washed-up actor. As it turns out, Rourke visage bears the scars of real-life amateur boxing, botched plastic surgeries, and hard-living like a mask, doubling for Randy's years of ring injuries and steroid abuse. Like Randy, this is Rourke's attempt to recapture faded glory, and the end result is sensational. Rourke compliments extremely physical wrestling scenes - no stunt-work here, even when Randy must cut himself to draw blood during a fight - with intimate moments of charm, sensitivity, and vulnerability.

Cassidy does not turn the heads of younger customers as she once did, much like the now 40-something Tomei finds herself losing roles to a younger crop of actresses. And, Wood's own strained relationship with her father, Raleigh playwright and actor Ira David Wood, undoubtedly informed her brief, but spot-on performance here. When a tired and hurt Stephanie finally tells Randy, "I don’t love you; I don’t even like you. There is no more fixing this; it’s broke…permanently," the line practically crackles with verisimilitude. (Wood has been quoted as saying this role was a kind of "paid therapy" that led her to recently reconnect with her dad).

Fact meets thinly-veiled fiction throughout The Wrestler, never more than a bar-scene during which the pall over Randy and Cassidy's lives is temporarily lifted to the strains of Ratt's "Round and Round" playing on the jukebox. "F****n' 80's man, best s**t ever!", exclaims Cassidy. "Bet'chr ass man," says Randy. "I'll tell you somethin', I hate the f****n' 90's."

Unable to cope with life outside the squared circle, the film's finale manages to be both tragic and inspirational, hitting you like a 'Ram Jam' to the solar plexus. Whether you call it the rebirth of Rourke or Requiem for the '80s, The Wrestler has all the right moves. "They don't make em' like they used to," laments Randy/Rourke. Bet'chr ass, man.

Neil Morris

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