"The Wrestler" *** (out of ****)
Watching "The Wrestler" brought back a lot of old memories for me. When I was younger I use to be a huge wrestling fan. I knew everything about wrestling. I had every WWF pay-per-view event and almost as many WCW events. I would go to see live matches when they would come in town with my father and would watch it religiously on television.
Because of this I know a little bit how the business works. This Darren Aronofsky film written by Robert Siegel gets a lot of it right. The way wrestlers carry a razor blade with them to cut themselves during a match. The lifestyle of traveling on the road, crappy pay in small towns, women throwing themselves at you and all the drugs you can get. If you follow wrestling this is a familiar story. Wrestling fans know what happened to people like Jake "the snake" Roberts or the Iron Sheik.
The critics are proclaiming this is Mickey Rourke's comeback role. Rourke for some reason or another just never made it to "A" list stature in Hollywood. Lots of people were getting ready to call him the next De Niro. The two even appeared in the same movie, "Angel Heart". Rourke may be best known for his role in "The Pope of Greenwich Village". But, after Hollywood snubbed him he decided to become a boxer. He had a record of 12 straight wins. He retired in 1995 and has been quoted as saying he would do anything for a second chance in Hollywood.
I don't know if "The Wrestler" will be the comeback he is hoping for. That is not to say the performance is not any good but if Rourke is going to plan a comeback a huge chunk of that is going to depend on the public. Are they willing to give Rourke a second chance? My gut tells me no. Yes, the theatre which I saw this movie at was packed, but, is this just a one time deal? Will audiences continue to pack in houses to watch this movie? Will they continue to see film after film in which he appears in? Otherwise, Rourke is back where he started. A serious talent who no one took serious enough to turn into a star.
Aronofsky is quite a challenging director. His last film was "The Fountain" a movie which received a lot of mixed reviews. I reviewed it here on this blog and recommended it. He also was the man behind "Pi" and "Requiem for A Dream". His films are not usually mainstream. But he has a strong following who enjoy his non-conformist ways. Usually working outside the mainstream.
In that respect "The Wrestler" could serve the same purpose for both Rourke and Aronofsky. The film may allow them to be discovered by a whole new audience which may have otherwise not paid attention to them.
"The Wrestler" tells us the story of Randy "the Ram" (Rourke), a wrestler who was once a star attraction in the 1980s, even going as for as winning a championship belt. But as "The Wrestler" starts Randy's fame has slid away. He now works for small promotions, wrestling in gyms but, among those in the business he is still treated with respect among the new guys. He is still put in the main event bouts and is even given his own dressing room. But the money is not the same. Some people still remember him but mostly as an almost forgotten memory. "Hey, weren't you that wrestler from the 80s"? Is what he mostly hears. But when a promoter gets an idea for a rematch with the Ayatolla (Ernst Miller), which was his most famous match, as the 20th anniversary approaches, Randy starts thinking he might make his comeback.
Fate has different plans for him however. Life usually gets in the way of our hopes and dreams. In Randy's case he gets a heart attack and is told he will never wrestle again. This near death experience makes him more introverted. He spends more time reflecting on what is important in his life and begins to realize, he is all alone. He has no one to share his life with. Randy decides to get in touch with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). He abandoned her and her mother when she was young and has remained distant ever since. The only other woman in his life is a stripper, Cassidy (Marissa Tomei). She wants to keep things strictly professional but to two seem to have developed a friendship.
The film's most tender moments involve the father-daughter relationship. It is in these moments we see how vulnerable Randy is. He spills his heart out to his daughter hoping she will forgive him.
Although Rourke has been getting tons of praise for his work and he should, Evan Rachel Wood holds her own with Rourke in every scene. She does not seem intimidated on-screen. She goes toe to toe with Rourke in all her scenes allowing for a main event bout in acting between the two of them.
I almost feel "The Wrestler" has too many scenes which take place in the ring, showing us what Randy puts his body through in every match. He is a beaten old man by now. But says he'll never stop fighting until the public tells him his time is up. But the wrestling scenes, while interesting, take time away from the film's most interesting part of the story, Randy's attempted connection to his daughter and relationship with Cassidy.
Aronofsky films "The Wrestler" almost as a documentary. We get shaky hand-held camera movement. The film doesn't have the "prettiness" of most movies. Sometimes this device works but other times I was getting a little tired of it having a hard time following the camera.
I don't think I have to tell audiences "The Wrestler" is not really a story about wrestling. In some ways it resembles Brando's famous speech in "On the Waterfront" in his "I coulda been a contender" moment. "The Wrestler" is a story about a man looking for a second chance. It is about realizing when our star has faded. About when life cruelly scatters all our hopes and dreams and takes away our happiness. But do we go on and fight or go down for the count?
It is hard to say if Rourke will get nominated for an Oscar. Some critics would suggest it has been a year full of good performances. But the Oscars are not above making bone head moves. Already Rourke has won an acting award from the Chicago Film Critics Association and he, along with Marissa Tomei, are nominated for Golden Globes. And the film itself won the golden lion at the Venice Film Festival.
I don't know if Rourke is going to be a star again from his performance here, but, why don't you go and see it and judge for yourself.