"The Wrestler", the new film from director Darren Aronofsky ("Pi", "The Fountain") is a good film. And it contains a good performance from Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a former professional wrestler who now makes a living appearing in smaller venues, letting his body get hit and abused and violated in all and every manner, so he can eke some dollars and maybe a little glory out of the profession he still loves.
But "The Wrestler" is easily one of the most over rated films of the year. Because it stars Mickey Rourke, who, lets face it, is a strange guy who has made a lot of terrible films, and he is good in the role, everybody seems to be genuflecting at his feet, proclaiming this the performance of the year. For me, that honor goes to Sean Penn in "Milk". Rourke is good, but because we are so used to him being mediocre or terrible, many people seem to mistake his good performance for something great.
Randy is a man who is too old to be performing in wrestling matches, but he appears in gyms and smaller exhibition matches in an effort to earn a few bucks here, a few bucks there, and maintain his living. But so much of his money goes towards drugs to keep him going and to the lap dancer, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), he likes that he has trouble paying the rent on his trailer. During one match, he has a scary dose of reality and ends up in the hospital. The doctors tell him he can't wrestle any more, if he does, he could die. This is a big moment for Randy and suddenly causes him to become even more reflective than normal. He begins to wonder about his adult daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Cassidy urges him to make contact so he drives out to where she is living.
Part of the problem I have with "The Wrestler" is that it is so damn predictable. If you have seen any film about a down on his luck athlete who is struggling to survive, you will be able to predict the outcome of each and every one of these storylines. From the Lap Dancer with the heart of gold, to the daughter who is extremely reluctant to reconcile with her dad, to the former sports hero eager to relive a moment of glory, you can figure it all out way before the individual stories come to a close. You can even figure out how certain stories will shape up and what will make them change. Darren Aronofsky is, if nothing else, a filmmaker who seems to try to make films that are unlike anything we have ever seen before. For good or bad. So why is "The Wrestler" so much of a throwback?
The film redeems itself considerably with the performances of Mickey Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood.
Again, Rourke is good. Not great. There has been a lot of press about how similar the character is to Rourke's own life. I can't say that I have followed his career (or lack thereof) over the last few decades, but Randy "The Ram" Robinson is a professional wrestler, and a former star, so there is a certain amount of similarity between his life and the strange odyssey Rourke has been on. And the actor throws himself full force into the role, making it seem real and believable. It is interesting to see someone who has appeared primarily in straight to video films over the last few years (with the exception of "Sin City") turn in an interesting, believable portrayal of a man trying to reclaim a few minutes of glory, trying to set things right.
Rourke's body and face fit the character perfectly and he has added long, greasy died hair to make the change complete. Sporting skintight spandex costumes, he meets with each of his opponents before hand and they go over the routine they are about to perform. Each of his opponents is clearly honored to work with the one time great Randy "The Ram" Robinson. So it is sad to see him receiving a small bundle of twenties for his appearance, after he has knocked himself out.
I think the closest analogy I can come up with is when Tarantino decides to use on of the actors who he loves in a new, career-defining role. There is a certain electricity when we watch John Travolta, Pam Grier, David Carradine or Robert Forster playing roles written specifically for them, tailored to their strengths. The roles thrust them into the spotlight again because they are each good and Tarantino has given them a new character to showcase their skills. But do they deserve an Academy Award? No. And neither does Rourke. With the exception of a coupe of memorable roles at the beginning of his career, and his more recent role in "Sin City", Rourke is the stuff of direct-to-video DVDs. Terrible direct-to-video DVDs.
Cassidy (Tomei), the Lap Dancer with a heart of gold, is clearly trying to do a job and Randy meets her because he pays her for some pleasure. But Randy forms an attachment to her and wants to talk to her about life, learn about her son, and more about her life during the lap dances. He even thinks that perhaps she is beginning to care for him and starts to confide in her, asking her to come out to his car to talk. Even though this is against the rules, Cassidy recognizes that Randy needs someone to talk to and occasionally steels away for a few moments.
Tomei is good as Cassidy, but it is too clichéd to be anything memorable. Despite the fact she shows her breasts in one form or another, repeatedly, she simply can't overcome the predictable nature of her character or the role.
Evan Rachel Wood is good as Stephanie, Randy's daughter who would rather die than reconcile with him. When he shows up at her door, she looks like she has just seen a monster from a horror film come to life. She tells her partner (I'm guessing on this point as the story never tells us who exactly the woman is) she can take care of it and goes outside to talk with him. He pleads with her to give him a chance and she is extremely reluctant. After they talk a bit and he opens up to her, she begins to let her defenses down. They set a date to have dinner on Saturday night.
For me, the most interesting aspect of "The Wrestler" is to watch the various people who are competing in the matches prepare. Randy and one of his colleagues visit a 99-cent store looking for props. Randy uses two foil-roasting pans and playfully exhibits his idea to the shop owner, who seems to take it in good stride. It is also interesting to watch the reverence with which the other competitors pay to Randy; they respect his previous work, even though he is passing them in the opposite direction. They certainly hope their stars are on the rise while his is clearly on the way down.
"The Wrestler" is good, but very overrated.