Randy Robinson is one of the most fascinating movie characters in recent memory. Played by Mickey Rourke in one of the great performances of the year, "Randy the Ram" was once one of the biggest professional wrestling stars in the country. Beloved by fans and worshipped by young boys, he was a giant in the field. Now, twenty years later, Randy is like a lot of other aging pro wrestlers. Years of injuries have taken a physical toll and, perhaps more painfully, younger stars have come in to supplant him in popularity. Where he once filled arenas, Randy now appears at small town "legends" shows held in shabby community centers or high school gymnasiums.
The attitude backstage is collegial, and if Randy is not the superstar he once was, he pretends not to notice. Only when he suffers a near heart attack does his world turn upside down. Told by a doctor that he needs to stop wrestling if he doesn't want his heart to blow out, Randy is devastated. (Those performance-enhancing drugs he relies on are no help either.) He confides his woes to a local stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) whom he has befriended in between lap dances. She encourages him to do something important with his life, something he has wanted to do but has been too afraid to try: reconnecting with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood).
Although his intentions are good, leaving behind his way of life is not easy. Stephanie is extremely resistant to his attempts at reconciliation, plus he's not very good at it anyway. Those old self-destructive patterns die hard. Randy also doesn't take well to "regular" work, where he can't show off and where no one screams his name. For these reasons, he is drawn to a potentially career-reinvigorating show - a "rematch" with his one-time rival that is guaranteed to draw crowds. The question for him is: does he try to tough it out on the right path or does he risk it all for one more shot at glory?
The Wrestler was directed by Darren Aronofsky, the talented filmmaker behind Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and the underrated The Fountain. This is a totally different type of movie for Aronofsky as it's a small-scale character study with little need for the cutting edge visuals and editing that were staples of his other pictures. Despite seeming to work against his own grain, the director pulls it off. This is a kind of movie I didn't know he had in him. Working from a screenplay by Robert Siegel, Aronofsky plunges us into Randy the Ram's life, allowing us to observe the details of his rundown world, as well as glimpse the damaged little man hiding beneath all the muscles.
Damaged. That's the best word to describe him. Much has been written about how closely Randy's career parallels that of the actor who plays him. After making a strong early splash in Hollywood with films like Diner and 9 1/2 Weeks, Mickey Rourke got lost in a haze of drugs and accusations that he was difficult to work with. The Wrestler offers him a chance at redemption with the role of a lifetime. It's safe to say that he body slams it. The actor obviously identifies with Randy's plight, which informs his entire portrayal.
Nowhere is that more evident than in two scenes where Randy is reduced to working at a supermarket deli counter. In the first, he tries to bring a little of his showmanship to the job, figuring that he still technically has some sort of audience. As long as there's a crowd to play to, he's ready to put on a performance, no matter how out of place it may be. In the second, he realizes that not only does he not have an audience waiting to be entertained, but he also has been reduced to the kind of menial labor he never wanted in the first place. Rourke certainly knows these feelings inside and out, as he went from being a major motion picture star to being a working actor in - how do I put this nicely? - straight-to-video crap. Because he's been where his character is, the whole performance almost stops being acting and becomes real.
Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are also excellent, playing women who add confusion to Randy's life. One is attracted to him, yet also unsure what he could possibly offer her. The other has years of pent-up hostility, which won't go away easily.
Since the movie revolves around people who are on the fringes, the dreary look accentuates what they are going through. From the musty auditoriums, to the sleazy strip club where Cassidy works, to Stephanie's cramped living quarters, the settings add much-needed atmosphere to the story. It's no surprise that Bruce Springsteen sings the end credit song; the film tells visually the kind of hard-scrabble working-class tale that the singer has always captured musically.
What I liked most about The Wrestler was its character arc. Randy the Ram has seen better days, wants to see them again, and is so desperate to find glory someway, somehow, that he will do whatever it takes. We can see that he wants to be a better human being, but what if the world around him doesn't allow him to? What if he'll never dig himself out of that hole? Watching The Wrestler, you find yourself rooting for Randy as he takes on his toughest opponent: life itself. We see clearly that it's a match he may or may not win, and from that, great drama arises.
( out of four)
The Wrestler is rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language, some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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