Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"The Wrestler" Goes Beyond The Mat: a movie review by Dave Crosland

If you're a child of the 80's, like me, then you probably have a special place in your heart for wrestling. No, I'm not talking about the overly erotic sport the Greeks handed down, where sweaty men roll around on a gym floor like oiled-up snakes in heat. I'm talking about wrestling... Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Andre The Giant, and Hulk Hogan. Big men beating the crap out of each other with elbows and folding chairs. WRESTLING.

So it's no wonder I was terribly excited to see the latest Darren Aronofsky film, "The Wrestler." The movie gives us an hour and 45 minute glimpse at the twilight days of a superstar of wrestling, with the spandex, pill-popping, regrets and all. Mickey Rourke plays the titular role of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, once a shimmering champion of the 4-cornered circle who now -- 20 years after the peak of his career -- is working the indie/semi-pro wrestling circuits to make ends meet. Randy's still regarded as a legend, by fans and fellow grapplers alike. But from the film's start, you know that The Ram's star has faded. He's older and slower. He's barely able to pay rent on a beat-down trailer home. He works part time at a grocery store. And the only highlights in his life (other than wrasslin') are pulls on bottles of cheap beer, and regular trips to a local strip club.

But don't get me wrong. While Randy's tale teeters on the edge of depression, it always manages to cling to the light, tethered there by the pure joy he finds in doing what he does. The man simply loves being in the ring. And, for the most part, life's ills roll off of him, like water off a duck's back.

For all the forces threatening the sanctity of his one true passion, none is more sobering than a heart attack Randy suffers after an especially brutal "hardcore" match. Afterwards, when he wakes up battered and confused in a hospital bed, The Ram's doctor insists he give his heart a break from the booze, drugs, and strenuous activity. And he puts the nail in the coffin when he mentions that wrestling would simply be "... a bad idea."

And so Randy is stuck between accepting life outside the ropes, or sticking with the path he knows, even if it kills him.

Among the myriad of characters that circle The Ram's world, the most pivotal satellites are an aging stripper (Cassidy) and his estranged daughter (Stephanie), played by Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, respectively. Tomei pulls off a wonderfully naughty and touching performance, as her character grows closer to Randy. The two seem perfect for each other... both past their prime and stuck in a hair-metal-80's time capsule. You don't get a super-thorough understanding of Cassidy. At times, she feels downright thin. But there's always the hint that there's more to her story. It's like the plot looks over the door into her world, but never quite passes through it.

The same is true of Wood's role as Stephanie. Yet, even though she orbits Randy from a further distance, the daughter's chapter in "The Wrestler" felt more complete than that of the would-be love interest in Cassidy. Years of abandonment have given way to a rage that seems to fuel Stephanie's side of the relationship with her father. But she never completely hardens, and we're able to see the little girl in her, still longing for daddy's acceptance. Wood brings the theatrical thunder, too, riding an emotional rollercoaster that runs from hope to hatred, guarded to vulnerable. And she does it with incredible believability, further proving herself as a serious young actress with range to spare.

That being said, the supporting cast remains just that. The movie never tumbles down a Hollywood path and lets itself stray into a love story, or a story of fatherly redemption. The plot is driven, unwaveringly, by the wrestler. Everything revolves around The Ram. And Mickey Rourke brings him to life with bone-grinding honesty. The painful winces, tears, and simple happiness that flash across his puffy, misshapen face convey incredible depth in a lead character who could easily be a joke, but comes off as anything but. The greasy blonde locks and violent passions hollar, "Wrestler!" but Rourke's stride and matter-of-factness hush the spectacle, showing us less of the monster and more of the man.

Director Darren Aronofsky spares us most of his signature, frantic camera tricks, and tells the story with a calmer display of filmmaking. I was especially enamored with the long shots, following characters in and out of scenes. He takes time detailing the mundane rituals of life that we all can relate to. I found myself laughing at parts, not because they were funny, but because they felt real. Like Rourke, Aronofsky has taken something that could have been a comical bouillabaisse and whipped it into a dramatic masterpiece.

"The Wrestler" is a storybook minus the storybook ending. It's the tale of a gentle giant living out of his own time. And although there's a tragic tint to it, you're never fully dragged to the bottom by the anchors of woe that lurk in this movie's waters. Because Randy "The Ram" carries that weight, and brings it all the way to the end of the film. He does it out of hope, determination, and blind stubborness. And he does it all to the roar of his beloved fans.

On a Transformers Scale of "Brawn" to "Unicron," this movie gets an Omega Supreme. Most definitely worth your $15, or whatever the ridiculous ticket prices are in your area.

-Bunker, out.


Pop-Monkey said...

I've heard nothing but great things about this movie and your added input just fans the flames of my excitement!
Thanks for the review!

Kelly said...

To hell with comics, Crosland, you should be writing movie reviews for the NY Times! You is one smart drawler.

Dave Crosland said...

Aw, shucks. Thanks you guys! I've missed doing entertainment reviews over the past few years, and am hoping to make these write-ups a regular part of the blog.

Thanks for tuning in and taking the time to comment!