Appellate Judge Tom Becker once wrestled as "The Dik-Dik." Get your mind out of the gutter, it's an antelope.
Our review of The Wrestler (Blu-ray), published May 4th, 2009, is also available.
Love. Pain. Glory.
Ram Jam! Ram Jam!
Facts of the Case
Randy "the Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) was a professional wrestling icon in the '80s. The years have not been kind to the Ram, though. He's still wrestling, but in small exhibitions for a few bucks a throw. He also picks up a little cash working part-time at a supermarket.
When he's not wrestling, Randy can generally be found at the local strip club, where he openly carries a torch for 40-ish lap dancer Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, In the Bedroom). Cassidy—née Pam—is a lot like Randy. Both are aging out of their respective professions, both are terrified at the prospect, and neither has a viable Plan B. Cassidy rebuffs Randy's efforts to jumpstart a relationship, preferring to deal with him as a client rather than a boyfriend.
Then the Ram gets the chance at a comeback. Twenty years ago, he epically fought "The Ayatollah"—a character name far more compelling then than now—and suddenly, in the interest of nostalgia, he has the chance for a heavily hyped rematch at a fan convention. Only problem is that just as the deal is made, Randy has a heart attack. His doctor's instructions are clear: He must give up wrestling if he wants to live.
But for Randy, wrestling is living.
In The Wrestler, everything we learn about Randy "the Ram" Robinson is in the here and now. There are no flashbacks to his glory days, though we see old mementos—yellowing photos, posters, and newspaper clippings, mainly, things with little value beyond memory and sentiment. Although much of the film involves Randy trying to right some past mistakes, we are never explicitly told what went wrong.
Thanks to Mickey Rourke's overwhelmingly sincere and moving performance, we don't need speeches to let us know what happened to Randy. We can see it carved in his face and burned on his body like a brand. His movements belie a lifetime of self-authored abuse. His body, bloated and unnaturally muscular, reflects years of steroid intake and punishing, unhealthy workouts. It's not just that he belongs in wrestling, but he has no other place to go. It's his element—bantering and negotiating the outcomes of the bouts behind the scenes with his "opponents," squeezing himself into his neon-spandex costume, parlaying his signature move into an anticipated, crowd-pleasing denouement.
But even in the ring, time marches on. There's a sense that Randy was something of an artist, that his show was more about athleticism and choreography than brutality—in contrast to the opponent who, in a gruesome sequence, uses a working staple gun as a prop.
When Randy's heart gives out—as he pulling staples out of his body—it becomes clear that his survival is contingent on his finding another way to make a living. Randy, who had been doing some work on the loading dock of a supermarket, talks his way into a better, steadier position behind the deli counter. His attempts to fit into the "straight" world seem to work at first. He's still a showman, still interacting with the public, just in a different kind of arena. It also gives Randy the chance to focus on the "real" world, to take care of things he's long ignored—like Stephanie, his estranged adult daughter, with whom he tentatively tries to connect.
Unfortunately, it's at about this point that the film falters, badly. Rather than the honest depiction of loneliness or desperation that the opening scenes promised, or a study of a man realizing that the world has moved on and so must he, director Darren Aronofsky and writer Robert D. Siegel pile on the clichés like so much salami. Were it not for Rourke's flesh-and-blood performance, The Wrestler's hackneyed script would sink this film like a stone cold hunk of lead.
I don't know that there's a melodramatic convention that's gone unturned here. We get the past-his-prime loser itching for a second chance; we get all manner of obstacles interfering with said chance; we get several examples of our hero/loser's loserishness, including being locked out of home due to nonpayment and we get estranged parents and children working toward reconciliation; we get the sex worker with the heart of gold; we get the unfeeling, uncool rest of the world; we get the dead-end job and eventual storming out; and, of course the bittersweet, ambiguously triumphant finish, complete with adoring female whose stony heart has been melted and a stupefying curtain-call speech that too-neatly spells out everything you've been watching over the last 100-plus minutes.
For a much-praised director, Aronofsky's oeuvre is amazingly slim. He made the acclaimed indie Pi and the acclaimed stepped-up indie Requiem for a Dream. His most recent film before The Wrestler, The Fountain, received wildly disparate reviews (including raves from DVD Verdict's Bill Gibron and Ryan Keefer). Aronofsky's strength lies in the power of his stylizations, and his ability to tell his stories in unique and startling ways.
But imagine if you'd stripped away all the stylization from Requiem for a Dream. You'd be left with a pretty standard cautionary drug tale and a strong central performance (Ellen Burstyn). This is essentially what you have with The Wrestler. Aronofsky shoots handheld and low budget, with jump cuts punctuating scenes as Godard did in Breathless, but nothing that is visually arresting. With no visual tricks to fall back on, Aronofsky's storytelling is just not that compelling, and were it not for the exceptional Rourke, I don't know that this film would have even gotten a release. Every now and again, we hear the phrase, "couldn't imagine such-and-such a film with a different actor," but never has it been as true as it is here. Because of the oft-noted parallels between Mickey and Randy, because Mickey Rourke breathes, sweats, and bleeds Randy the Ram, The Wrestler is powerful in spite of its weaknesses.
The women function mainly as props. Marisa Tomei follows up her "I'm over 40 and naked" performance in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead with another "I'm over 40 and naked" turn. She's actually naked a lot here, but it feels a tad gratuitous, in part because Tomei just looks too good. The deeper parallels between Cassidy and Randy—two people whose clocks are ticking faster than most of us, since they use their bodies for their livelihoods—just aren't pursued. Instead, she's a sounding board and foil, though her scenes with Rourke are nice. The two have a weary but natural chemistry. There are moments when the two seem to be on their own, let loose—a nice back and forth about why the '80s rocked and the '90s sucked, for instance—and these bits crackle with a naturalness that's exhilarating and heartbreaking. Then they get back to the business of the script, and this perfectly organic relationship gives way to what a writer deems necessary to get to the next scene.
As Rourke's daughter Stephanie, Evan Rachel Wood looks disturbingly like her real-life boyfriend, Marilyn Manson. While the gist of Randy-tries-to-make-up-with-his-child sequences are pretty much what you'd expect—a little memory lane, a few recriminations, a tearful declaration of love and contrition—Aronofsky makes effective use of his location, a wintry, mid-demolished boardwalk. Again, Rourke astounds, taking material you've seen dozens of times and imbuing it with such heart that it becomes his, profoundly affecting even if you know exactly what he's going to say before he says it.
The Wrestler really shines during those moments when it doesn't feel scripted. In addition to Rourke's scene with Tomei, there are the verité-style scenes backstage before the matches, Randy doing "the Ram" for a bunch of neighborhood kids, and Randy the Ram making himself the "star" of the deli counter just after getting the job. The deli sequences work surprisingly well and, perhaps more than anything else, give us insight into this character. It's a shame that Aronofsky and Siegel end up going with the old "servile work is soul crushing trope," replacing the friendly customers with persnickety ones and having Randy freak out when a customer recognizes him—odd, since he'd earlier complained that his store ID badge contained his birth name rather than his stage name. Sure, the take this job and shove it bit is standard in films like this, but Aronofsky's efforts to depict working the deli counter as the sixth circle of Hell seems uncomfortably elitist, particularly given the present economy.
The screener disc I viewed from Fox looked fine and sounded great. There were two extras, the main one being an extensive, 42-minute making-of featurette, "Within the Ring." This is a very good piece that includes clips of "real" professional wrestlers preparing for matches and offers a lot of background on the film.
The other supplement is a music video for Bruce Springsteen's theme song. Why in the world was this song robbed of an Oscar nomination? Besides simply being a good song, it dead-on captures the essence of the film and the character.
Other than Rourke's eye-opening performance, there is nothing fresh about The Wrestler. But what a performance it is. Well worth a look.
Rourke is commended by the court and encouraged to continue to pick his projects wisely. Darren Aronofsky and Robert Siegel are admonished to start looking closer at real people and stop relying on clichés to tell their stories.
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