Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wrestler's Rhapsody

Had some internet connectivity issues for a time there, but I am back, baby. Just in time to share with you my review of ...



The Wrestler (d. Darren Aronofsky)

I guess I'm an on-again, off-again fan of Professional Wrestling. There have been times when I've been consumed by it (the last speeding ticket I was ever issued came a few years ago when I was rushing home from work to see The Rock on one of the first ever episodes of "Smackdown!" -- not a proud moment, but it felt like it was worth it at the time). I've also gone months without checking in on it.

But one thing remains constant. Anytime I should have occasion to mention that I like Pro Wrestling to someone who's not a fan, that person always says the exact same thing to me. Every single time.

"You know it's fake, right?"

What they are referring to is the fact that Pro Wrestling matches are choreographed with predetermined outcomes. True enough as far as it goes. What they are neglecting in their ignorance is the fact that professional wrestlers put themselves through the proverbial wringer to get to those outcomes. You don't fake being flipped again and again over a man's shoulder and onto your back. You don't fake a fall off a ten-foot-tall ladder perched inside a five-foot-high ring onto a solid concrete floor. You don't fake being on the road 300 days out of the year getting the living daylights beaten out of you every single night. You don't fake the physical toll that takes.

You don't fake the emotional toll, either.

The title character in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler is Randy "The Ram" Robinson and donning the tights and strapping on the boots has taken a serious physical and emotional toll on him. His once handsome face is cauliflowered and misshapen. His body is beginning to betray him. On the emotional side, his estranged daughter wants nothing to do with him. And the only women he can relate to are wrestling groupies and strippers.

The Ram has fallen on economic hard times, as well. His heyday in the 1980s is long gone and he's reduced to stocking a grocery store during the week so he can perform on weekends in high school gyms. But then, the twentieth anniversary of his most famous match -- a First Gulf War Era throwdown with a heel known as "The Ayatollah" -- rolls around and Randy sees a glimmer of hope on the horizon. He sums up his hope with what might be the saddest line in any movie this year:

"With a little luck, this could be my ticket back on top."

Even he doesn't really believe it.

Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" and, like the poster says, it's a resurrection of sorts. Rourke's life directly mirrors Randy's story: he too left an 80s peak behind to punish himself with his lifestyle and dubious career choices. Now he is uniquely qualified to portray this man. Or maybe he's just properly damaged.

Given how Rourke as both character and actor casts such a huge shadow over this film, it's more than a little amazing how well matched he is by Marisa Tomei who plays a stripper Randy tries to connect with. Tomei brings a unique journey of her own to her role as exotic dancer Cassidy. Her talents have often been overshadowed by an inaccurate rumor that she never really won her Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, that a doddering Jack Palance misread the contents of that night's Oscar envelope. It is not -- repeat NOT -- true.

For the record, Marisa Tomei is one of the best actresses we have. She was magnificent in My Cousin Vinny and she continues to deliver bold, brave, affecting performances like her work here in The Wrestler 16 years later.

Ahem. Sorry. Bit of a tangent there. Where were we?

Tomei's Cassidy is putting on as much of a fantasy character as Randy is when he becomes "The Ram" for the wrestling fans. She is really Pam, a single mother who is looking to put her stripping days behind her. And she is adamant about keeping a strict boundary between her personal and professional lives. On the pole, she's Cassidy. Outside the club, she's Pam. And never the twain shall meet.

Randy has a different perspective about his persona. He prefers being Randy "The Ram" Robinson to being Robin Ramzinski, his real name. He tries to bring as much of the Ram into his everyday life as he can, insisting on being called Randy and even complaining when the wrong name appears on his grocery store name tag.

Pam's character of Cassidy is entirely for the benefit of the paying customers. Robin's character of Randy "The Ram" is much more for himself.

It's appropriate that two actors with such singular and difficult paths should play these two characters, who are actors of a sort themselves. As an actor, you can treat the process as a job, like Pam/Cassidy does, or you can lose yourself in the role, like Randy tries so hard to.

In the end, the tragedy of The Wrestler is that Randy understands the brutality in the ring better than he understands the messy real feelings and real people who exist outside of it. As he prepares to begin a match that he probably shouldn't fight for any number of different reasons, he tells Pam, "I don't get hurt in there. I only get hurt out here."

That pain is many things. It is first and foremost real.

4 stars.

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