Friday, February 06, 2009

The Wrestler: More gain, less pain

There's a good deal to admire about The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky's downscale drama that has revived the careers of Mickey Rourke and (once again) Marisa Tomei. As Aronofsky's most realistic and least affected work to date The Wrestler proves that the director of Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain can in fact tell a story. Both Rourke and Tomei are in fine form and richly deserve their Oscar nominations, I only wish that the movie surrounding them had dared to go a little farther in depicting a world where characters are hemmed in by their own shortcomings.

The Wrestler isn't a much a movie as it is a catalogue of indignities visited upon Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a former pro wrestling star reduced to playing American Legion halls on the weekend to make a buck. The Ram is much older than the men he wrestles with and against and his colleagues revere him as a hero of the sport. There's a funny scene early on where the wrestlers plan their matches with their opponents, negotiating moves and stunts in an effort to please the audience and stay safe. I wish Robert Siegel's script had gone a bit further inside this warmly depicted ad hoc community where getting a garbage can dumped on your head is all in an evening's work. The story turns on a "match" seemingly designed for its sadomasochistic possibilities, in which the Ram and his opponent break glass over each other's head and the Ram is shot repeatedly with a staple gun. The Ram has a heart attack after the match (caused in part by his unhesitating consumption of steroids) and is forced to give up his wrestling career for a humiliating job behind a grocery deli counter.

Aronofsky and Siegel work so hard to make the point that there's no place for the Ram in the straight world that I almost wanted to put my hand in a slicing machine by the end of the movie. The Ram's boss is a jerk, the single mom stripper (Tomei) he loves doesn't think he can handle a relationship (the scene where the Ram and Tomei's Cassidy share a beer and bond over '80s metal is the movie's loveliest moment), and his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) has good reasons for not wanting anything to do with him. It's the passivity with which the Ram accepts his lot in life that sucks a good deal of the charm out of The Wrestler for me. Just like the way Jennifer Connelly's addict becomes a prostitute in Requiem for a Dream, the Ram seems a little too set on subjecting himself to physical or psychic pain wherever he can find it. The Ram's tirade through a grocery store after quitting his job is well played and well set up, but why does he have to maim himself first? The climax occurs when the Ram is matched up against an old rival for a 20th anniversary bout. Rourke almost pulls off the maudlin speech the Ram gives to the crowd before the match but the scene is a setup since we already know that the Ram thinks the match will be the last gasp for his failing heart. Do wrestling fans like hearing soul-baring confessionals from their heroes? Aronofsky is unwilling to grant the audience a chance to empathize with the Ram at the end, since the movie ends in medias res with the Ram on the top rope ready to pull off his patented move. As good as Mickey Rourke is (though the years have left him with an awfully inexpressive face), The Wrestler is just as overly determined as one of the Ram's matches.

(also posted at The Greenville Critics)

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