The brilliance of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler is that he plays an '80s pro wrestling star, Randy "the Ram" Robinson, a celebrity big enough to earn his own plastic action figure, as if he were a flesh-and-blood action figure. He's a shallow guy with a sense of humor and a heart. He's any overgrown boy's best friend. He's a buddy for all fellow grapplers who follow the sport's elusive rules. He's a playmate for any neighbor kids in his trailer park who can still get a kick out of seeing the Ram's avatar fight in fading first-generation video games.
With a profile battered in real life from his own boxing career, and a body he sculpted to rugged new proportions, Rourke wears the part of Randy the Ram with becoming lightness. When Randy enters a strip club and belligerently protects Marisa Tomei's lap-dancing stripper, Cassidy, from insult, the wary rapport of these two sensational performers suggests grungy romantic comedy.
That's not what the film turns out to be. Darren Aronofsky, who directed, and Robert D. Siegel, who wrote the script, put him at the center of a drama predetermined for a downward slide. This movie has an aura of forced tragedy, like a fourth-generation version of Requiem for a Heavyweight. The filmmakers focus on Randy's inability to do anything else with his life after his stardom wanes. The drama proves more mournful and leveling than it needs to be.
Some movies about losers, such as Leaving Las Vegas, generate dizzying blends of comedy and drama as their heroes go into death spirals and reveal untapped depths of warped creativity or curdled sensitivity. The Ram simply realizes his limits and makes all the obvious wrong moves.
Aronofsky brings us right into the ring with wrestlers trying to please promoters and maintain their fan base by enduring ever more baroque and painful beatings, gougings and stabbings. It's fascinating, at first, to see Rourke in businesslike fashion meet the needs of his job, trading moves beforehand with his match-mates, procuring the requisite drugs to keep him properly pain-free and juiced. And Aronofsky cannily depicts the Ram's troubled truce with lower-middle-class life. Aronofsky doesn't overdo the Ram's continuing fight with his landlord, who can't time a rent schedule to the wrestler's fight schedule, or some sour comedy with a supermarket manager, who gives the Ram part-time work on the loading dock.
But after one excruciating bout that leaves the Ram ready to play the final scenes of The Passion of the Christ (a movie Cassidy references near the start), his heart collapses and he needs to make a living another way. He enlists Cassidy's help to reconnect him with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), whom he abandoned years ago. His Acme boss finds him a regular spot behind the deli counter. The actors, though, can't help signaling trouble ahead. There's no complication here: You can take the Ram out of the ring, but not for long, because you can't take the ring out of the Ram.
Except for the draggy scenes with the daughter, every tiny detail, like the Ram's action figure, snaps into place. Aronofsky is wily and skillful, but he has a coarse and mistaken sense of what's authentic. He likes to rub noses into gore and grunge during the turnaround bout, and tears, in the awful moments when the Ram batters his way emotionally into a tentative rapport with Stephanie. Tomei's springiness as Cassidy keeps the character alive. Her single mother has the common sense and drive to separate her young son from her stripping, lap-dancing life. But you can't believe this vibrant woman would reject the Ram simply because he is "a customer."
Aronofsky and Siegel mistake hopelessness for realism. They give into the adolescent romanticism of melancholy. The film would be fresher and more intriguing if the Ram did create a new life for himself slicing ham and packing potato salad.
Rourke is the one who saves The Wrestler again and again. Except when the Ram is with his daughter, you never see Rourke milk the character for sympathy. The movie may solicit crocodile tears, but Rourke stays true to his own sense of a guy who simply wants to die with his wrestling boots on.
(Fox Searchlight) Starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. Rated R for violence, nudity, language and some drug use. Time 115 minutes.
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