Sunday, January 25, 2009

Movie Review: The Wrestler...is that an old Rocky Balboa in spandex?

After seeing "The Wrestler" last night, I left the theatre feeling rather bruised and battered myself.

I saw it with 5 other people, all of whom thought it was excellent. My reaction? Appreciation for the effort, queasy stomach at some of the gore (close your eyes and plug your ears if you don't want a close-up lesson on the finer points of how to use a staple gun...), and an overall sense of been there, done that.

After thinking about it, "The Wrestler" is what "Rocky Balboa" might have been had Stallone wanted to turn the Balboa story into a tragedy -- aging fighter, past his prime, wounded and failing, seeking final time in the spotlight after driving people away. Actually, I think that was the plot of the execrable "Rocky V", a movie so bad that Stallone himself decided to ignore it when he made the final Balboa film. Combine those two, add some long bleached locks, shiny green spandex, and overt steroid use, and you're on your way to the main plot points of "The Wrestler".

For me, "The Wrestler" is not a great film though I know some people feel it was robbed by a lack of a Best Picture nomination in the Oscars. The plot follows largely predictable lines and I found few if any surprises as I watched it. The story follows professional wrestler "Randy the Ram" (Mickey Rourke) 20 years after his championship bout in Madison Square Garden. Living in a trailer and driving a broken-down Dodge Ram van, he is now reduced to performing at independent American Legion Hall bouts and appearing sparsely attended autograph sessions when not hauling boxes at the local supermarket. Following a heart attack suffered after a particularly brutal bout, Randy reaches out to a daughter he'd largely abandoned and tries to connect to Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) a stripper, all in an effort to avoid that sense of being alone. In the end, he eventually faces a choice -- build connections and something lasting outside the ring or return to the cheers, adulation, respect, and potentially death within the ring.

Rourke certainly embodies The Ram -- his bashed face looks like the hunk of broken-down meat he describes himself as when talking to his daughter. His performance is heart-wrenching at times as you see him grasping for respect with his failing body and wounded heart. He also physically fills the role and clearly spent time working with actual professional wrestlers in preparation.

I've never been a huge fan of Mickey Rourke -- I was too young to be invested in "Diner" and while "Angel Heart" is a truly frightening and smart film, it wasn't entirely due to his performance but rather the story itself. As a result, I don't have much invested in the "comeback" storyline that has enraptured many people. Here he gives a compelling performance and certainly sacrifices his body to do it. Do I think it's necessarily the best performance by an actor this year? No, not really but it's certainly impressive.

While scenes with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, playing the part with a bit too much pout and sulk for me) feel overwrought with a few clunking, clich├ęd lines, Rourke and the movie really do shine on several occasions. When Randy picks up some extra hours at the supermarket by working the deli counter, his natural performer's instinct emerges and you see this hulk of a man connecting with the suburbanites asking for the potato salad and a half-pound of honey-baked ham. You can understand how this man manages to engage his audience and it's clear why, when he's performing, he's popular. 

**MONDAY UPDATE** I heard Darren Aronofsky interviewed today and the scene in the supermarket was a) largely ad libbed and b) featured actual customers doing their shopping with no idea that it was Mickey Rourke behind the counter. Kudos to Mr. Rourke then for improvising the single funniest line of the movie after an older woman asks him for two big chicken breasts.**

His interaction with the other wrestlers backstage before and after bouts is also fascinating. Up front they make it clear that this is entertainment, not sport, as they discuss the politics of who wins and who loses and the recognition that you have to earn your way from the role of villain (the heel) to the hero (a face). The Ram is clearly a face. Not only that, he's a man who has earned the respect of these other gargantuan, steroid-enhanced men, all of whom call him "sir" and clearly defer to him, whether it's through his private changing area or their clear adulation before and after at being in the same ring with him. Of course, once they are in the ring, they beat the crap out of each other until the script says it's time for Randy to win. You might not think of professional wrestling as a sport (I certainly don't) but these scenes make you appreciate the athleticism and abuse these men put themselves through in the name of entertainment while presenting enough squirm-inducing scenes to make you want to put down your popcorn. (Did I mention the barbed wire?)

While Rourke is, understandably, the focus of the film, Marisa Tomei holds her own, showing a different side of herself, and stealing a few scenes away from him in her Oscar-nominated performance as Cassidy. A stripper with a 9-year son and a hope for something better, Cassidy is very much like Randy, her customer at the club. Now in her 40s, she is edging toward the old and washed up side of her profession and knows that she doesn't have much time left. Unlike Randy, however, there's no reservoir of prior greatness and respect left to feed upon. Instead, with her son as her foundation, you might argue that she is actually far better prepared for the future than Randy as well as a source of salvation for him depending on his final choices. Unfortunately, she isn't given as much to do here as you might hope given the quality of her performance.

In the end, "The Wrestler" is a watchable film that pries open the dissolving life of a man who has been beaten down but still retains some pride in what he does. Rourke and Tomei don't hold anything back and help make what could have been a pedestrian "aging lion who refuses to quit" story into something a bit more compelling if not altogether original or surprising.

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