Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Wrestler (2008, Darren Aronofsky)

(Apologies in advance for the language, but in this case no better word comes to mind. Sorry mom.)

The title on the poster is The Wrestler, and that’s a pretty accurate representation of how Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) sees himself. Yet just as accurate, if not as ad-friendly, would be The Fuckup. After all, here’s a guy with very few prospects and almost no self-preservation instinct, who can’t seem to catch a break in life not because he’s unlucky, but because he basically screws himself out of bettering himself. Perhaps the main thing that keeps The Wrestler from being a Rocky clone is that he’s not just a lovable lug, but is a legitimate fuckup, whether it’s in his “day job” or in his relationship with his estranged daughter. Worst of all, he knows his nature only too well. Inside the ring, he’s a hero- albeit an aging, downmarket version of one- who’s not only good at what he does but has a rapport with the fans. But outside the squared circle, he can’t make the payments on his trailer, spends all his money on steroids and tanning beds, and tries to put the moves on an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei). Hell, the guy’s real first name is “Robin.” In addition, he’s stuck in the past, not just the glory days of his career, but also in a youthful lifestyle, with hard-partying nights (one of which torpedoes his attempts to reconcile with his daughter) and a centerfold plastered to the wall of his bathroom.

Of course, most reviews of The Wrestler have singled out the parallels between “The Ram” and Rourke himself, a former acting golden boy whose career slide was largely of his own doing. But to say Rourke is playing himself is to deny what a startling piece of acting this is. The physical aspects of the role are most apparent, not merely the buffed-out (no doubt steroid-enhanced) physique, but also his commitment to verisimilitude in the wrestling scenes- that’s his actual blood we see on more than one occasion, folks. But while Rourke’s undeniable physicality was also at the forefront of his wonderful turn in Sin City, that role was an outsized caricature, and “The Ram” is completely human-sized. His lack of invincibility makes his fuckup nature that much more poignant, since the time is clearly limited for him to pull himself together. My favorite example of this in the film comes in his brief stint behind a supermarket deli counter- not the most glamorous of jobs, but one he begins to settle into during the film. If anything, I wish Aronofsky had included some more scenes of Rourke flirting, joking, and shooting the bull with customers (“what can I get ya, spring chicken?”), which might have made his eventual fate in the job all the more effective in my mind- my dream cut of the film would run at least half an hour longer, the difference all comprised of deli scenes. Nonetheless, The Wrestler is a rarity in American cinema- a simple, straightforward character study that doesn’t sugarcoat its protagonist but makes us feel for him all the same. It’s pretty magical, all the way through its perfect final shot.

Rating: 8 out of 10.

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