Monday, January 5, 2009

The Wrestler

By Elise Nakhnikian

Darren Aronofsky’s latest movie, The Wrestler, appeals to the part of us that gawks at car wrecks. Only this one’s a bumper car pileup, patently fake and not much fun to watch.

There’s been a lot of talk about an Oscar for Mickey Rourke’s performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson. A 50-something professional wrestler reduced to working tiny crowds in third-tier venues, Randy’s trying to get back into the limelight, coaxing his failing body into a rematch with an arch-rival from his glory days in the 1980s.

Rourke ruled in the ‘80s too. In movies like Diner, Body Heat, The Pope of Greenwich Village, and Rumble Fish, he played a soft-voiced, sideways-smiling tough guy with a heart of gold, the kind of man every girl wanted to date and every boy wanted to be – or be friends with. For a while, he looked almost like the next Brando: not as much range, maybe, but a similar mix of innate coolness and emotional accessibility.

Then he started turning down interesting stuff like Pulp Fiction for forgettable dreck like Wild Orchid, turned in some bizarrely mannered performances, and dropped out of acting to go pro as a boxer. He also trashed his delicate good looks, bulking up his body and making his face so puffy, presumably from steroids, that he became almost unrecognizable. (Come to think of it, that was pretty Brando-ish too.)

In the last decade or so he’s made a comeback, getting great reviews and progressively bigger parts. The Wrestler is his first leading role in years, and with so much of the focus on the similarities between Randy and Rourke it could easily been another case of stunt casting, like so many of his throwaway roles of the ‘90s. But Rourke injects his character with generous amounts of his old charm and charisma. Randy is a self-saboteur, the kind of guy who breaks the hearts of everyone he tries to get close to, yet you can’t help but like him.

What looked like a fascination on Aronofsky’s part with charismatic down and outers in Requiem for a Dream is beginning to look more like an infatuation. The camera in The Wrestler ogles Randy admiringly even when, after seeking out Stephanie, the daughter he’s been estranged from for years (Evan Rachel Wood with a severe black dye job), he lets her down again. She sobs, swearing that she never wants to see him again, and we zoom in to see how sorry he feels – for himself.

Sure, I can empathize with a screw-up who can’t help alienating the people he most wants to be close to. But when a father makes a dinner date with a daughter he hasn’t seen in years and then forgets to show up, is he really the one you want to feel bad for?

A couple years ago, Sherrybaby told the story of another well-meaning but dysfunctional parent through the eyes of both parent and child. Wood is an excellent actress, but she couldn’t make Stephanie’s feelings as real to me as Sherrybaby made the excitement and trepidation of Sherry’s six-year-old -- and caring about what happened to that little girl gave me a bigger stake in that story.

Former Onion editor Robert D. Siegel’s script makes it clear that Randy acts more like a kid than an adult and lets us see the pain he causes to his daughter and his aging stripper girlfriend, Cassidy (Marissa Tomei). But the power of POV overrides all that.

When Aronofsky finds something he likes, he can be like a kid with a new video game, playing it over and over again. In The Fountain, it was those interminable shots of Hugh Jackman floating around space in a snow globe-looking spaceship. In Requiem for a Dream, it was a montage that translated the rush of getting high into a series of dramatic jump cuts and sound effects. 

His favorite new thing in The Wrestler is the handheld camera that trots behind Rourke like one of the actor's faithful dogs, framing scene after scene with part of Randy’s steroid-broadened back and dark-rooted blond mane and making sure we see everything through Randy's eyes, often almost literally. That means he's essentially forgiven every time he hurts somebody, since we see the transgressions from his point of view and know that he just forgot or did his best or whatever. Aronofsky's interested in the price Randy pays for his own mistakes, not the pain he doles out to other people.

A lot of this movie's appeal boils down to cheap thrills. Tomei, who’s too young and far too lushly gorgeous to play over-the-hill, seems to be there mostly to titillate us, since she does a lot of the pole dancing and lap dancing that appear to be part of every young (or youngish) actress’ repertoire these days.

We also get our noses rubbed into a lot of brutal fake fights, since the filmmakers seem to think we all thirst for the sight of large men grinding each other’s backs into barbed wire or shooting each other with staple guns.

Of course, this is a Serious Movie, so they try to have it both ways, criticizing our imagined bloodlust even as they cater to it. But are we really supposed to buy Cassidy’s analogy between Randy (“the sacrificial Ram”) and Jesus Christ?

Personally, I preferred Nacho Libre.

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