Screen view: The Wrestler

Year of release: 2008

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Viewing: Netflix DVD

Three Reasons to Watch:

  1. Learn how to use a staple gun in a professional wrestling bout
  2. Marisa Tomei lap dancing
  3. Powerful performances from Tomei and Mickey Rourke

Three Reasons to Avoid:

  1. You’d rather not learn how to staple objects to your forehead
  2. You’d like to remember Mickey Rourke from the 1980s and not as the incredible hulk
  3. The last time you saw a train wreck, you lost your lunch

*** Spoiler Alert ***

From the start you know that “The Wrestler” will not end well, though you begin to hope that it does. Mickey Rourke plays a professional wrestler well past his prime, but clinging to the “sport” in equal parts because it’s all he knows how to do and the ring, in front of a screaming fans, is the only place his life seems to have any meaning.

This film is well made with excellent performances, but it is sad. Very sad. Afterward, I began to see it as the anti “Rocky.” Both films are about aging ring warriors looking for redemption. Rocky Balboa is a “ham and egger” who gets a shot at the heavy weight boxing title and makes the most of it. Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a wrestler, once at the top of his profession, now eking out a living in small-time venues on the New Jersey circuit, making it through on a regimen of steroids and pain killers. “Rocky” is a feel-good event, “The Wrestler,” well, is not.

Where Rocky woo’s and wins the pet shop dame (“Yo, Adrienne”), Randy’s social life outside the arena centers on a stripper named Cassidy — played by the remarkable Marisa Tomei. Randy has an estranged daughter (Rocky has an estranged son, but only in the latest installment). After he suffers a heart attack following a particularly gruesome bout (i.e. the one featuring the staple gun), he follows his doctor’s advice and retires from wrestling. But Randy soon finds his life empty without the roar of a blood-crazed audience and the camaraderie of the locker room. In a sincere effort to fill this void, Randy begins an awkward courtship of Cassidy, and attempts a reconciliation with his daughter. He also gets work behind the deli counter of a supermarket, a job he seems completely ill-suited for, but which he begins to enjoy, as he interacts with the customers. Everything falls apart when Cassidy shoots him down, he goes on a binge, and sleeps through a dinner date with his daughter.

By this point we have gotten to know Randy, and we sympathize with him. Like Rocky Balboa, he is a nice guy in a brutal profession. He makes time for fans, always encourages the younger wrestlers. And he has a deeply moving scene with his daughter, where the two of them reminisce about her youth, before he abandoned the family. Do we really like Randy, though? I didn’t. He is too thick. I mean that both ways. He’s not dumb, but he’s kinda slow on the uptake. But he’s also swollen from juicing and the years of scar tissue. This is not a handsome or attractive man. In one scene, when he first shows up at his daughter’s home, her roommate recoils when she opens the door and finds him standing their. 

Ultimately, Randy is a coward, because he does not wish to truly commit to life outside the ring. All the issues he has can be easily dealt with with patience and a little dose of courage. Neither of which Randy seems to muster.

By the time Cassidy realizes that perhaps she wants him, Randy has already decided to return to the ring for one last bout — a rematch of one of his most famous bouts from 20 years before. It is clear that Randy is hoping to die in the ring, and not even a late plea from Cassidy, who begs him not to go through with the bout, can sway Randy from his self-destruction. As he says to her (paraphrasing from memory), “This is where I belong. It’s out there (the real world), that I get hurt.”

The filmmaker depicts professional wrestling as the show business act it is, but also wallows in its graphic brutality to the point where I wondered if it really is as violent as depicted. If it is, how stupid are its practitioners? 

The performances are excellent. The contrast between Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei is startling. Rourke has always had an edge, but in early films like “Diner,” he was a skinny, sweet-faced kid with a mischievous smile. Now he is a disfigured hulk with a mischievous smile. Tomei, on the other hand, still has the body of a 20-year old (she’s 44), and it is on full display during lap and poll dance sequences. It, then, would be easy to be distracted from her wonderful acting. I mean it has to be difficult to act when you’re shaking your bare breasts and wiggling your ass — perhaps especially for an Oscar winning actress. Tomei makes Cassidy hard-edged, vulnerable, and street-smart in a thick New Jersey kind of way. (By the way, how is it that an actress as beautiful as Marisa Tomei always ends up with hamburger like Joe Pesci and Mickey Rourke?)

This is a well-made movie, but one that seems rather pointless. There are no lessons here. The situation written for Randy and the way it plays out are as much a fantasy as the ending of “Rocky.” The events that conspire to drive Randy to his suicidal last bout feel contrived. It is one thing for a filmmaker to pull your strings for a feel good ending, but quite another to be manipulated into a downer. In this regard, the film is kind of like its subject matter. As in professional wrestling, the audience is turned on by play acting, but in The Wrestler — unlike wrestling — WE receive a hard elbow to the solar plexus.


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