The Wrestler

Robin Clifford 
The Wrestler
Laura Clifford 
20 years ago, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, was top dog on the world wrestling circuit immortalized by an action figure and a “Ram” video game. His best days are far behind him as he now ekes out a living scrapping in high school gyms for dozens, not the previous thousands, of fans. When Randy suffers a heart attack he must face his wrong decisions in life and make amends in “The Wrestler.

You have to hand it to Mickey Rourke. The actor played the handsome bad boy early in his career with “Diner” and “Rumble Fish” but really showed his acting chops in the 1987 film, “Barfly.” Rourke eschewed the normal Hollywood star route and marched to his own tune, falling from popular notice over the last 20 years. In “The Wrestler,” he is back, in top form, giving a nuanced and sympathetic performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson.

Director Darren Aronofsky blazed his own filmmaking trail with his debut feature, “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain.” His unique vision is seen, once again, with his character study about a man whose dreams are far behind and mortality and loneliness are his lot in life. The helmer does a fine job and highlights Mickey Rourke to excellent affect.

Co-star Marisa Tomei, as Randy’s friend and potential love interest Cassidy, gives a solid performance as a good-hearted stripper who genuinely cares for her wrestler friend.  Faring less well is Evan Rachel Wood as Robinson’s estranged daughter, Stephanie, a bitter young woman whose heart has been broken too many times by her father. Her character is underwritten, almost an add-on to the film, making Stephanie two-dimensional, at best.

“The Wrestler” works best when Randy plies his violent trade. The scenes in the ring are given verisimilitude as The Ram holds court with his much younger colleagues ­ played well by non-actor professional wrestlers who draw your empathy. Aronofsky pays homage to the sport and takes no cheap shots at its players and their choice of profession. The matches have the right tone of entertainment and realism as the wrestlers face off as adversaries in the ring. The locker room scenes, where Randy praises them all for their dedication and skill, feel true to life.

Pro wrestling fans are the obvious target audience for “The Wrestler” but Rourke’s fine performance, Aronofsky’s craftwork directing and the well-written script by Robert D. Siegel should garner interest from others, too. I give it a B+.

In 1989, Randy 'The Ram' Robinson (Mickey Rourke, "Diner," "Sin City") was the champion of the WWF and a beloved celebrity.  Today, he is estranged from his only child, in love with a stripper who refuses to treat him like anything but a customer and locked out of the trailer where he lives because of overdue rent.  But when Randy is presented with an opportunity for a rematch with The Ayatollah, the contender he took down two decades earlier, he believes he can return to his glory days as the only thing he knows how to be in "The Wrestler."

With a poignant character study from writer Robert D. Siegel, director Darren Aronofsky has created a film that, like its protagonist, seems sprung from the past.  Leaving behind the stylish imagery of films like "Requiem for a Dream" and the vastly undervalued "The Fountain," Aronofsky makes a 180 degree turn with this urban, gritty 70's styled movie while breathing new life into the career of Rourke, a former promising amateur boxer who returned to the ring in the 90's for an ill-fated run at a championship match.

After setting the stage with an opening title sequence collage of 1989 headlines, programs and other mementoes of the pinnacle of 'The Ram's' career, Aronofsky plunks us into the present, where a down and out middle-aged Randy is woken by kids banging on his car window.  His life consists of a weekday job on the loading dock of a local grocery store and the sad sorry upkeep of his Ram personna.  We watch Randy, with his limited income, continue a regime of workouts, tanning bed and hair frosting (but, amusingly, he buys his stage props at Jersey Dollar).  He blows a grand on steroids and sixty dollars on a lap dance from Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), the one woman left in his life. Randy still competes, but today's wrestling is far more brutal than that of yesteryear, and after one particularly nasty bout, he suffers a heart attack.  Cassidy is more concerned than she will admit to herself and suggests he reconnect with family and, for a brief time, things look up, but Randy is an old dog who can only learn new tricks in the ring.

Siegel's screenplay is reminiscent of everything from early 60's teleplays like Rod Serling's "Requiem for a Heavyweight" to the urban angst of 1969's "Midnight Cowboy," and yet its symbolic paralleling of its subject to Christ, its cynical gaze at the modern marketplace and its extreme violence modernize it.  While it follows a familiar trajectory, Randy is explored from so many angles it never seems stale.  In large part, this is because Aronofsky has not only submerged his film in its milieu, but coaxed a career-defining performance from his hand-picked leading man.  Like Rourke, Randy has been battered by life and his face and hands show it, and yet the actor doesn't make the man a bully or a dimwit but a sensitive guy with a sense of humor that can overcome some amount of pride.  Rourke makes you believe Randy'd be happy with a little bit of love and respect and a roof over his head - watch how he uses his showmanship to excel when a need of cash sees him move behind the deli counter. His is a quiet and compelling performance, one of the very best of the year.  Supporting him, Tomei, who has been enjoying showing off her bodacious forty+ bod of late, maintains a beautiful balance of sympathy and affection with distrustful distance.  Her character is a single mom who hates being defined by the profession she earns a living by and Tomei lets her defenses against Randy's charms drop slowly, like a strip tease.  As Randy's daughter Stephanie, Evan Rachel Wood ("Thirteen," "The Life Before Her Eyes") is all raw, betrayed fury.

Cinematographer Maryse Alberti ("Zebrahead," "Crumb") gives the film a documentary style flavor in locations that evoke the story's bleak yet nostalgic mood and editor Andrew Weisblum ("The Darjeeling Limited") does a superb job letting the audience relax into the films more reflective moments to rest from the wincing onslaught of the ring (some scenes in "The Wrestler" are harder to watch than torture porn).

"The Wrestler" is a sad and eloquent tale of what once was crumbling to dust, a final roar against the oncoming inevitability.  It also offers a whole new perspective not only on its comeback star but its director.

B+  (Note - I have rarely done this, but upon a second viewing, I realize I underrated "The Wrestler" and have changed my grade to an A-.)

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