The Wrestler - Movie Review

Posted on 20. Dec, 2008 by Administrator in Film/TV

by Brent Simon

The self-destructiveness and outlandish behavior of Mickey Rourke (alcohol and other vices), the by-mutual-agreement “retirement” from acting in the 1990s (and subsequent decrying of the craft as too feminine), not to mention a boxing career that spanned several years – have all but obliterated our memories of Rourke as a preternaturally charismatic and tender tough-guy actor, when he made his mark in movies like Diner, Rumble Fish, The Pope of Greenwich Village, 9 1/2 Weeks, Angel Heart, and Barfly

America loves redemption stories, though. And so the curtain rises on the unlikely third act of Mickey Rourke by way of The Wrestler, a very conventional character-study drama that connects chiefly because of its ineffable merging of two battered, sensitive-bruiser dreamers. There’s its drug-addled, Gorgeous George-type, autumn-of-his-years title character, a has-been professional grappler. And then there’s Rourke, the fragile, musclebound, elective surgery-scarred actor. 

Written by Rob Siegel and directed by Darren Aronofsky (in a rather blatant stab at get-out-of-filmmaker-jail relevance after the commercial washout of 2006’s The Fountain), The Wrestler focuses on Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who back in the late ‘80s was a headlining draw. Now – two decades later, with his body a tangled mess of bruises and knotty scars – he ekes out a living performing for handfuls of die-hard fans in high school gyms around New Jersey. Estranged from his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) and unable to sustain any real relationships, Randy lives for the thrill of the show. A sudden heart attack, however, forces him to consider retirement. 

As his sense of identity starts to slip away, Randy begins to evaluate the state of his life – he tries to reconnect with his daughter, and he also strikes up a romance with an exotic dancer named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) who might be ready to start a new life. Yet old habits and easy choices die hard, and Randy’s passion for the ring isn’t something that disappears quietly. 

What most comes through in The Wrestler, which won the Golden Lion for Best Picture at the 2008 Venice Film Festival, is Randy’s burning desire for personal connection and a little human touch, which of course dovetails with Rourke’s own melancholic yearning. The film, therefore, works chiefly as an affecting series of pulled dramatic levers – the awkward reboot of interactions with Stephanie, the fraternal bonds with his fellow wrestlers, and the quiet nobility of blue-collar work. This rings true even if Aronofsky sometimes overplays the narrative parallelisms, as he does when he pumps in chanting-crowd noise under a long tracking shot that finds Randy reporting to duty during his first day on the job at a grocery store deli counter. 

There are great, pulsing moments of matched-medium nostalgia in The Wrestler, as when Randy and Cassidy reminiscence at a bar about ‘80s music, or when Randy enters the ring to Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. (Axl Rose may, in fact, be every bit the tragic rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of Rourke.) But the film’s finale overreaches; it doesn’t match the tenor of the man we’ve come to see, no matter his emotional drift. Still, Rourke fascinates. It’s one of the year’s most mesmerizing performances, as much because of the long road taken to get there as anything else. (Fox Searchlight, R, opens December 17 limited, expands nationwide throughout the month) 

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