Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A "Wrestler" Who Pins Himself in the Past, and Us in Our Seats


directed by Darren Aronofsky
starring Mickey Rourke, Marissa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

We all want a talent that distinguishes us from the pack. But what if you had such a talent, and the act of pursuing it, immersing yourself in it, developing it to its logical extreme, ended up divorcing you from the rest of your surrounding reality?

That question’s arisen a number of times in movies about artists, musicians, writers, mathematical and scientific prodigies, spies, even assassins; and perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the rare movie that doesn’t romanticize their self-alienation to at least some degree. As if to avoid this trap, “The Wrestler” focuses the question on an unlikely subject—an aging pro wrestler played by Mickey Rourke—and deliberately strips his world of all flash and glamour, at least in the here and now. The glory days of Randy “the Ram” Robinson are long gone: as we learn right at the very outset, he peaked professionally circa 1987-88 and never really moved on to anything else.

So the film picks up with Randy 20 years later, still devoted to his art even as he’s all but washed up, his face and body beat up by decades of punishing self-abuse, his personal life practically nonexistent. After a health crisis forces him to reassess his lifestyle, he sets about trying to find a new job, reconnect with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood, quite good in an underwritten part), and build a relationship with Cassidy (Marissa Tomei, also quite good if you aren’t distracted by the frequent glimpses of her boobs and butt), a stripper he likes but who refuses to date her customers. The rest of the movie follows his struggle to carve out a new path for himself even as he keeps one foot planted wistfully in the past that’s defined his entire identity.

It’s not giving anything away to say that the odds are heavily stacked against him. Randy’s like a man brought out of a 20-year cryogenic freeze; his trailer, indeed his whole life, resembles a time capsule buried in the late ’80s, complete with cassette tapes, Polaroids, a Nintendo 64, and newspaper clippings and VHS tapes of his greatest fights, and free of cell phones, DVDs, Internet, and any music post-dating 1990. Curiously (or perhaps not, given that the film is mainly from his perspective), even the outside world through which he moves—a succession of seedy bars, nondescript stores, and sterile public spaces in wintry New Jersey—contains very few reminders that times have changed.

Shot with a gritty, grainy home video feel, “The Wrestler” is at once compelling and painful to watch. The fights and “cleanup” scenes afterwards are decidedly not for the squeamish, while Randy’s awkward efforts to reach out to the few people he hopes will care for him are at once squirm-inducing and heart-wrenching. Still, the film remains fundamentally compassionate towards its central character, in no small part because of Mickey Rourke’s performance. Given Rourke’s own career history of flash, crash, burn, and fizzle, it’s no wonder director Darren Aronofsky fought so hard to cast him as Randy. In fact Rourke’s almost too perfect for the part, to the point that it’s easy to underestimate the quality of his acting and assume (unfairly) he’s just playing a version of himself. Be that as it may, what emerges is one of the most palpable, believable, three-dimensional characters I’ve seen on screen all year. Randy has the profile of a sad sack, a loser, or what one character, in a moment of anger, calls a “living, breathing fuck-up,” yet as portrayed by Rourke, he somehow manages to retain a certain quiet dignity throughout it all. Perhaps it’s because he’s so dedicated to the one thing he does well—put on a hell of a show as the Ram—even if it means he can’t do anything else right.

There’s a moment near the end, just before he commits to a crucial decision, in which Randy delivers a speech to his fans that summarizes why he’s led the life that he has. In many ways, it’s a deeply saddening speech, yet it’s so heartfelt it elicits neither pity nor contempt. Rather, it’s the speech of a man who’s chosen his own way and accepted the consequences. As such, it’s entitled to respect—and that’s all “The Wrestler,” both man and movie, ultimately needs.