Friday 4 September 2009

The Wrestler (2008)

Friday 4 September 2009
Mickey Rourke has been staging "comebacks" throughout the '00s (aiming closest to the bullseye with Sin City), but his efforts finally pay-off at the tail-end of the decade with The Wrestler -- a sports drama directed by Darren Aronofsky, who himself uses this low-budget enterprise as a riposte to those who'd started to doubt him when he followed visceral Requiem For A Dream with maudlin The Fountain...

Rourke plays faded wrestling superstar Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a grappling idol for the '80s generation, who now lives in a trailer park as a local celeb, performing in town halls and gyms with beefcakes half his age. Despite these hardships, a dependence on prescription drugs, and an ego-pricking fall to the bottom rung of the career ladder, Randy's still has the respect of the community, believes he's found a soulmate in jaded stripper "Cassie" (Marisa Tomei), and is still doing what he loves every weekend.

That is until a near-fatal heart-attack forces Randy into unwanted retirement. Suddenly, "The Ram" is facing his autumn years without the salve of the squared-circle, forced to take extra shifts on a delhi meat counter (and take verbal blows from his smart-ass boss), has to decline the offer of a lucrative 20th-anniversary rematch with ring nemesis "The Ayatallah" (Ernest Miller), and decides to make amends with his estranged lesbian daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who considers her absent father an over-the-hill joke.

There's no escaping the fact that, as a movie, The Wrestler is given a boost because its story echoes Rourke's own riches-to-rags story; once a respected, successful, handsome actor of the '80s (thanks to 9 ½ Weeks and Angelheart), Rourke turned his back on Hollywood for professional boxing, then drifted through the '90s in a fugue of drink, drugs and plastic surgeries that eroded his beauty. Now a bloated hulk with a penchant for tiny pooches, Rourke's gained the appearance of an aged pro-wrestler and the cultural stigma of a failed, eccentric screw-up. Little wonder he was Aronofsky's first choice for the part, or that Rourke realizes the material offered him the best chance of a career revival.

Indeed, Rourke's excellent in the lead, even if cynics will point to the fact he's playing a funhouse mirror version of himself. I can't deny they have a point, but the criticism's too blunt to puncture this comeback. After all, many award-winning performance are the results of a perfect actor/subject synergy, while most A-list movie stars barely step outside their comfort zone. Rourke carries a melancholic, sympathetic tone throughout, and it's extremely easy to be swept along with Randy's story as a result. He's even quite touching in a few key scenes, too -- most notably during a heart-to-heart breakthrough with his daughter, although these moments are surrounded by scenes where Robert D. Siegel's script caves in to clich├ęs and lazy exposition.

Far better is Randy's relationship with middle-aged stripper Cassie (a.k.a single mom Pam), who perhaps sees her own future refracted in Randy, as she's likewise trapped in a profession where she's starting to feel the pinch due to her advancing years. Tomei, a good actress tarred by a 1992 Oscar win most people felt was undeserved, puts in a strong performance that provides Rourke with a quirky, interesting female counterpoint. She also reacquaints us with her bare breasts.

To be honest, there's not much about The Wrestler that's truly unique amongst its peers, or much about its story that bucks convention. These movies have a formula and The Wrestler adheres to it, but it's very comfortably put together by writer Siegel and director Aronofsky, fires off occasional sparks of emotional truth and poignant drama, and is held together magnificently by a back-on-form Rourke. If I have one tiny complaint, it's that the ambiguous ending would have landed more of an emotional punch if so much wasn't left to our imagination, but I know many would disagree.

directed by: Darren Aronofsky written by: Robert D. Siegel starring: Mickey Rourke (Randy "The Ram" Robinson), Marisa Tomei (Pam/Cassidy), Rachel Evan Wood (Stephanie Ramzinski), Todd Barry (Wayne) & Ernest Miller (Bob/The Ayatollah) / Fox Searchlight Pictures / 109 mins. / $6 million (budget) /