Tuesday, November 16, 2010

THE WRESTLER (2008): The Comeback of Mickey Rourke

The Wrestler could be described as bawdy, hilarious, unpredictable, violent, savage, tender and at times even corny, crude, defiant, gritty, raw, marred, hardcore, swaggering and macho - from beginning to end.  The same terms could be used to describe the main protagonist of the film, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, and also the film’s star and chief asset, Mickey Rourke.  I haven’t seen a character study on film quite so personally compelling as this one since The Apostle featuring Robert Duvall came out in 1997.  The Apostle, an underappreciated and overlooked film, was about the dubious subject of evangelism. So maybe it’s not a coincidence that I would be equally impressed by a movie about professional wrestling.
As one would expect, the action of The Wrestler begins and ends in the wrestling ring.  It’s just at the beginning, Randy (Mickey Rourke) is performing in front of a small crowd in a high-school wrestling ring in Newark, New Jersey while at the end he’s staging a major comeback in a huge sports arena in Wilmington, Delaware.  It doesn’t take us long to figure out that Randy is having a rough go of it.  The man that had huge paydays before an adoring public some twenty years before is now living in a trailer where he’s perpetually behind in rent, driving a van with a roof that is almost rusted clear through, and working during the week in a grocery store and deli that is probably paying little more than minimum wage.  Randy barely has enough money to finance the concoctions of painkillers, steroids and human growth hormones he needs to keep wrestling.  Though idolized by fellow wrestlers and the young boys that live nearby in the trailer court, he seems to have difficulty in relating to every important woman he has ever had in his life.  His young adult daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), alternatively hates and loves him, but is never at ease with him.  Stephanie, now a college student and lesbian, continues to resent him for the years of neglect while growing up when Randy was off wrestling in some other part of the country.  We’re not sure what happened to Stephanie’s mother, but it’s safe to say her relationship with Randy did not end positively.  The other important woman in Randy’s life is a stripper named Pam (Marisa Tomei) with a stage name of Cassidy.  Randy frequents the strip joint in which Cassidy is working for companionship and occasional lap dance.   Cassidy has an eight-year old son and, probably because she has been hurt so many times in past relationships, is wary of Randy’s advances.
It’s now been almost twenty years since Randy wrestled “The Ayatollah” (Ernest Miller).  The promoters want to bring the two foes together again for a rematch that is almost sure to guarantee huge receipts.  Randy, sick of his current circumstances and hoping for a big payday, decides to take the promoters up on the idea.  However, circumstances get in the way.  After a wrestling match that leaves nothing to the imagination, Randy collapses in the locker room and suffers a heart attack.  Bypass surgery is performed and Randy is told that he would be risking his life if he wrestled again.  Randy then decides to retire from wrestling and attempts to reconnect with Stephanie.  But after an evening of snorting cocaine and spending an evening with a crazed female groupie while forgetting that Stephanie is waiting for him at a nearby restaurant, any chance of reconciliation with his daughter is at an end.  While working at the deli and being recognized by a customer as Randy “The Ram” (Randy’s real name is Robin, a name he despises), Randy cuts himself on the meat slicer, goes into a rage and walks off the job.  Randy then calls up the promoters and says the comeback match against “The Ayatollah” is on.  Cassidy or Pam tries to prevent Randy from walking down the aisle to the ring out of concerns that Randy will suffer another heart attack.  Randy explains that he has to get back into the ring because it’s the only place he feels he has any control in his life.  Thus, Pam leaves him too.
Randy enters the ring to a cheering crowd, speaks into the microphone and talks about paying the price of burning the candle at both ends, how he’s not as pretty as he used to be, and how he’s still standing there as “the Ram” (a speech that only a fan of professional wrestling can appreciate), and then wrestles “The Ayatollah.”  During the match Randy appears to be holding his chest (which may have indicated real chest pain or may have been part of the show), puts on a great show and then climbs to the top turnbuckle to deliver his patented finishing move.  We see “The Ram” flying through the air and then the movie ends.  Randy is diving into the unknown and we don’t know if he wins or loses … or lives or dies.
The Wrestler is not a perfect movie as we can’t expect a film to be perfect that centers on professional wrestling, but it’s certainly more watchable than Frost/Nixon which some critics almost imply is perfect.    Frost/Nixon is a balanced stage play that contains an entrance, an introduction, a contrast, a tension, a conflict and resolution.  It’s a film that fits a pattern and can be diagrammed.  If Frost/Nixon makes no mistakes it’s because it takes no chances.  The Wrestler never stops taking chances because the director, Darren Aronofsky, and its star, Mickey Rourke, are not afraid of a little insanity.
Sometimes, The Wrestler borders on being melodramatic.  The weakest portions of The Wrestler mainly revolve around the relationship of Stephanie and Randy.  Stephanie almost seems bipolar in her mood swings and I’m not sure even an unblemished Randy could ever have made peace with her.  Their relationship is a bit too forced.  Likewise, the film risks the same sort of pathos concerning Randy’s relationship to Cassidy yet it never goes so far that we do not believe that the two are a good match for each other.  If anyone could make Randy care it’s someone that has had a livelihood almost as peculiar as his own.  Sadly, both Randy and Cassidy are screwed up just enough to keep pushing each other away.
Randy is a professional wrestler and working class stiff.  The brutality he endures in this “fake” sport seems almost a blessing compared to what he is experiences outside of it.  He only knows one way to provide to the women he cares for and this is not acceptable.  They need him to be a man while at the same time asking him to be pretty, polished and tame.  Unfortunately, he can’t be all of these things.  By being a man he has taken too many beatings to be pretty any more.  By taking on jobs that nobody else wants to do, a clean shirt becomes a luxury he can’t afford.  If he was to become tame, he’d have to take on a job in the office which is something he neither has the training or disposition to do.  As he becomes increasingly marginalized, he seeks solace in front of the only people that show him any appreciation.  These include young physically active boys that idolize athletes, the flag waving and boisterous crowds that seek violence in the high school gym and auditoriums, and other wrestlers that are in the same position as he is.
What Cassidy only partially understands and what Stephanie does not understand at all is that Randy is the only one that will give them tenderness.  About everyone else in their lives are fake human beings.  Randy does not expect anything in return for his tenderness.  As he says to Stephanie at one point, he just does not want for her to hate him.  Since Stephanie and Cassidy want Randy to be somebody he is not and since the other women in his life are groupies that he would be better off never meeting, Randy returns to an activity that is a danger to his life.  This is not Rocky Balboa returning to the ring to show that he can still be a man.  This is a professional wrestler doing something insane out of desperation and because he is not allowed to be a man under any other circumstance.  That Randy bares his fate with a sense of humor and a certain sense of dignity (he doesn’t pretend to be qualified for anything else) adds to the sadness because he does deserve better than exploitation by promoters for more dollars.
The star of The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke, is now fifty-six years old.  Rourke was actually a fighter before he ever considered becoming an actor.  As a young amateur boxer, he was competing with and sometimes victorious over some world class talent including Floyd Mayweather, Sr. - who fought Sugar Ray Leonard professionally and is the father of Floyd Mayweather, Jr., the current Welterweight and Junior Middleweight champion of the world.  (There’s an interesting twist to this.  Mickey Rourke’s stepfather, Eugene Addis, claims that Rourke is a notorious liar.  Addis maintains that Rourke only fought one amateur bout, a bout in which he was badly beaten.   The fact that we have two very different stories indicates that someone is lying, but I’m guessing it might be the stepfather.  I’m also guessing that Rourke and his stepfather are no longer close.)  When Rourke left acting and returned to the ring to box professionally in the 1990s, he achieved a record of six wins, no losses and two draws (admittedly against mostly unknown or inexperienced fighters), but he also managed to break his nose four times and fracture his jaw.  This led to disfiguration of his face.  For someone that had starred in such movies as Body Heat, Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Year of the Dragon, and Angel Heart, returning to the boxing ring must have seemed like a strange career move.  I feel Rourke may be the single besting acting talent we currently have and has the ability to act out his very personal blemishes into dramatic roles. (I don’t think the part he played in Year of the Dragon has ever been sufficiently appreciated.)  Yet anyone that has ever watched Rourke’s acting would probably conclude that Mickey Rourke was a strange man.  Along with many intense and borderline great films, Rourke also starred in the uneven Barfly and the dismal 9 ½ Weeks, which would understandably have made an actor of Rourke’s caliber want to pursue another profession.  Anyway, with his acting career on hold, Rourke’s personal life was also in shambles.  He’s had two broken marriages (probably brought on by spousal abuse), arrests and battles with the bottle.     After all that, he will now probably win (and deservedly so) an Oscar for Best Actor. *
 I have never seen a movie that Darren Aronofsky has directed before, though I have some friends that swear by a Requiem for a Dream that came out in 2000.  I do like what he does with The Wrestler because it almost seems like he stays out of the way and just lets Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei act.  I think The Wrestler was snubbed for the Best Picture Oscar because it compares favorably with the five movies that did get nominated.  The Wrestler is 115 minutes long making it almost fifty minutes shorter than the overblown The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  It is a sad movie with humor that makes The Wrestler about fifteen times better than The Reader.  It’s not a preachy or self-righteous film like Milk or Frost/Nixon and this makes The Wrestler seem almost refreshing in comparison.  And the action in The Wrestler never lags making it more consistently intense than Slumdog Millionaire.  In short, I would have voted it for Best Picture of the Year if I had any say with the Academy Awards Committee.  I guess that would be asking for too much.
*  Well, so much for my predictions.  Sean Penn won for his role in Milk.

February 17, 2009
© Robert S. Miller 2009

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