Friday, January 23, 2009

Review: "The Wrestler"

Mickey Rourke has come a long way – mostly in the wrong direction.

Twenty-five years ago, it seemed like he was headed for the very top echelon of leading male actors. Instead, he made a bunch of forgettable movies, flirted with a boxing career, and earned the sort of reputation around Hollywood that causes phones to stop ringing.

In “The Wrestler,” his character Randy “The Ram” Robinson finds himself in much the same career straits. A top wrestling star of the ‘80s, he’s so strapped for cash that he’s been locked out of his single-wide in a crummy New Jersey trailer park. He sleeps in an ancient rusted-out van, and his family won’t speak to him. He’s still working, if you can call throwing a few body slams in a VFW hall in front of a couple dozen aging fans a career.

Why do Randy, and Mickey, keep doing what they’re doing, long past their prime and for a diminishing amount of appreciation? Because they’re good at it, because they enjoy the thrill of pleasing an audience, and because despite all the pain it brings them, it’s all they know how to do.

Rourke is nearly unrecognizable as The Ram. Part of it is the road the actor has taken – his face has been repeatedly altered by plastic surgery (though Rourke has denied this) to the point of becoming an indistinct lump of fleshy scars. The other changes are intentional for the role: his body buffed and tanned into a cartoonish caricature of manhood, a waist-length braid of bleached-out hair cascading down his back.

It’s the sort of look that grabs attention in the ring, but isn’t very practical on your day job working behind the deli counter at a grocery store. The rest of Randy’s time is spent hanging out at the local strip club, talking to a stripper named Cassidy (Marissa Tomei) whom he’s sweet on. Cassidy puts him off none too gently, failing to see that the has-been wrestler is a harbinger of her own predicament.

Randy’s attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) are ham-handed but earnest, buying her second-hand clothes and hanging out on her doorstep like a wayward puppy.

Wrestling is a fake sport, but the key to the movie’s success is that director Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel treat it respectfully. To them, it’s just another profession, one framed by ridiculous theatrics, yes, but with its own codes and rules. These men in their spandex have their own sense of honor.

Witness the way the performers confer before their staged bouts, laying out their physical weaknesses and preferred moves. When another older wrestler suggests using a staple gun and barbed wire during their act, Randy doesn’t blanche. When they return, the ring canvas now soaked in their blood, the younger wrestlers in the locker room cheer. In this community, flesh torn in the pursuit of entertainment is the ultimate badge of professionalism.

Even when Randy’s health fails and the doctors tell him to give up wrestling, he can’t stay out long. Despite the blood and the scars, Randy knows that “the only time I get hurt is out there,” outside the ring.

Good thing that Mickey Rourke decided to go to the mat and risk getting knocked around again. “The Wrestler” is more than a comeback; it’s an actor’s redemption.

3.5 stars out of four

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