Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: "The Wrestler"

Mickey Rourke, Mickey Rourke, Mickey Rourke. "The Wrestler" (2008) redefines what constitutes a proper star vehicle. As washed-up wrestling legend Randy 'The Ram" Robinson, Rourke balances the entire film upon his hulking, creaking shoulders. His raged, leathery frame fills almost every shot, and his labored breathing and grunting make up an integral part of the sound design. He delivers a total character, a more-than-lived-in entity who grabs us and guides us (quite literally, for many of the shots are handheld over-the-shoulder as he walks into the wrestling ring or behind a grocery deli counter) through his tale. 
Set down in Springsteen's crusty old New Jersey, we find the Ram working the amateur wrestling circuit and getting peanuts for it. Most of his 'rivals' (it is revealed here, as many people have already figured out, that professional wrestling is very much staged, and even specific moves are planned by the wrestlers before hand, like a rock band reviewing their set list before a concert) today were children when he was in his prime. Randy is coasting here on the scant fumes of his former glory. 
His only companion outside the ring is a milfy stripper (Marisa Tomei) called Pam. She gives him lap dances while they spit idle conversation about life and stuff that would be normal in any place but a moldy strip club. She's still got it, as they say, but her old age (by stripper standards) makes it increasingly difficult to do her job, that is, get guys off. They are both, the stripper and the wrestler, working past their primes in body-careers that demand to much. Pam and Randy revolve like twin moons, pulling each other out of orbits that have become wobbly. 
The film happens in three very distinct parts. The first meanders through Randy's wrestling routine - buying steroids, visiting the tanning salon, buying "weapons" to use in the ring at a dollar store, getting his hair done. And, of course, there is the actual wrestling. And I mean actual, as Rourke does perhaps all his own stunts, astonishing at the age of 56 and with all the drugs and things he put in his body in the '90s. Most of his fellow wrestlers are played by the genuine article, which is only appropriate; the entire film feels very much like a documentary, by way of a hangover. In one harrowing sequence, The Ram fights a guy who shoots both of them with an actual staple gun. There is also an excessive use of barbed wire and other such bloodletting miscellanea. It is directly after this fight that The Ram collapses with a heart attack. 
So commences part two. A doctor tells Randy that continuing to wrestle would pretty much be deadly. "But I'm a professional wrestler," Randy insists. "That's not a good idea," advises the doctor. Here is the essence of the film's middle - Randy doesn't know how to be anything but The Ram, and no one else can understand this. 
I will not spoil the third act, but you will see it coming. Though the addition of a traditional, forward-moving plot is perhaps a bit jarring after the sublime fly-on-the-wall experience of the opening 20 minutes, this reviewer deems it necessary. There is a side story involving Randy's estranged, grown daughter, Stephenie, that falls flat and serves only to demonstrate, in case there was any doubt, that The Ram can't lead a normal life. Played to the edges of melodrama by Even Rachel Wood, Stephanie Robinson feels like she belongs in another film, or perhaps a television drama. 
Props are due to director Darren Aronofsky for stepping back and letting Rourke do his thing, while weaving around his star a silky web of bleak yet feverishly vivid visuals. Aronofsky is indisputably an auteur of the highest order, but he recognizes that this is Mickey Rourke's film (the actor even wrote much of his own dialogue). 
"The Wrestler", to be summed up unsatisfyingly and inadequately, is about time building up on a person until they are stuck in the mud. The film really is a cinematic experience in the truest and purest sense; we are given information, that info is feed through tribulations and emotions, and we come through in the end with something we did not have before. Never, though, have I encounter such a profound example of this unexplainable ride in the form of an out-and-out star vehicle. Perhaps this is something new. Perhaps this is something unrepeatable. Mickey Rourke has been in our collective consciousness for almost three decades, during which time he rose to stardom and acclaim, fell bombastically from grace, and is now making a dignified return, showing perhaps more talent and power than before. "The Wrestler" runs along side it's star's real life; conversely, Mickey Rourke does everything he can to bring his fictional doppelganger, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, to life, and it is glorious. The fictional and the actual become mixed to the point of inseparability, and what we are left with is a film that has no predecessor, nor can it have a successor. It is an island in cinema could only have happened at this point in time with this exact actor at it's center. 

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