Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Wrestler

directed by Darren Aronofsky
written by Robert D. Siegel
starring Mickey Rourke, Evan Rachel Wood and Marisa Tomei

The Wrestler is a film that has been talked up so much this year, what with Mickey Rourke's comeback performance that's sure to garner an Academy Award nomination. But the film blindsides you. You're expecting it to be good. You're not expecting it to be this good and in this way. It stands with Rachel Getting Married as two of the only films I've seen this year that completely defied expectation. This is a fine addition to Darren Aronofsky's catalogue of films and certainly one of the best pictures of the year.

It stars Mickey Rourke as Randy "The Ram" Robinson (what a great wrestler name), a popular wrestler from the 1980s, who is way past his prime, but still wrestles professionally simply because it's the only thing he's built for. It's the only thing he's ever done that makes sense to him. We often don't realize how elusive that meaning is for people (even ourselves) and what we will do to hold on to it. By day he works in a supermarket, and by night he visits another performer. A stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, turning in reliable supporting work, as usual). The two seem to form a bond, but is it all a farce? It's hard to tell at first. Cassidy does seem genuinely concerned about Randy when he comes and shows her his battle wounds (wrestling may be for entertainment purposes, but the scars are quite real). Cassidy is also willing to perform for Randy, and resolves that he is another customer. The strip club is a very peculiar social institution, and makes a relationship between Cassidy and Randy both possible and impossible at the same time.

After suffering a heart attack after one of his matches, Randy is told that it would behoove him to stop wrestling--a notion that frightens him. Not because of the money he'll lose out on for a big comeback match being planned in Madison Square Garden. But because wrestling provides him with that aforementioned meaning. Aronofsky has created an operatic character study of a broken down man whose options are few, and whose time seems to be limited. Mickey Rourke plays Randy with a sheer intensity, but also a softness we've rarely seen from him of late. The similarities between Randy and Rourke are tough to ignore. The producers initially were interested in Nicholas Cage for the role of Randy, even though Aronofsky's heart was always set on Rourke. Thankfully, they made the right decision. The film doesn't work without Rourke's central performance, surely one for the ages. Particularly heartbreaking, are the scenes in which Randy tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who is angry at him and feels the sting of paternal abandonment. He tries, his intentions are good and he comes so close. But man, does Randy ever make some mistakes. The acting is so strong in these segments that you almost overlook how somewhat clunky this storyline feels in the midst of the narrative. Tomei turns in an impressive supporting turn as Cassidy. She has been a reliable presence in Hollywood for years and is one of the few people I can look to as a genuine supporting actress, one who turns in impressive and compelling work, often times in projects not worthy of her. It's nice to see her in something that is.

Siegel's screenplay is standard, the story not particularly compelling at first glance. But like wrestling, it's all in the execution. This is a finely executed film, from top to bottom. It is one that would have benefited from an earlier release date to build up buzz and a rabid fanbase. If it had, then perhaps this film would be where the good but overrated Slumdog Millionaire is now. It certainly deserves to be. But there's a bit of poetry in the fact that The Wrestler, one of the year's best films, won't be nominated for best picture. Like Randy the Ram, maybe it's just misunderstood and stumbled on some bad luck. But like Cassidy says to the Ram in a pivotal scene, "I am here." The people who appreciate this film are here. And they will be, long after the dust settles on 2008 and people look back at this sure to be classic and cry "What were we thinking?"

Grade: A

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