Corliss on Film

The Wrestler: Resurrecting Mickey Rourke

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.
Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.
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It's all anyone's been talking about at the two big film festivals: Venice, which ended today, and Toronto, which began Thursday. One group of critics has seen The Wrestler, the other is waiting, tongues out like famished dogs, for tomorrow evening's North American premiere. The movie's producers have withheld U.S. rights until after the film shows here, anticipating a festival furor. On Saturday, the movie won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival — the event's top honor. Already, the two Hollywood trade papers have raved about the movie's star performance, and the Los Angeles Times headlines the question: "Will The Wrestler get hold of an Oscar for Mickey Rourke?"

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My guess: maybe, since Rourke gives not only the kind of performance that Hollywood, the critics and some of the public think burrows into the very essence of acting. He made himself nearly unrecognizable — put on maybe 50 pounds, studded his face and body with the scars of war — to play a has-been fighter hoping for a last shot at the big time. It's the kind of punishment that won kudos for Lon Chaney and Paul Muni in the old days, and helped Robert De Niro to an Oscar in Raging Bull playing Jake LaMotta. (He got himself into fighting shape, then he gained a ton of weight! Acting!) Beyond the stunt aspect, Rourke does strong, sensitive work. All praise to him, and to Darren Aronofsky for casting the actor and directing him to turn a standard fiction into quirky, coherent behavior.

But the movie itself is pretty bad.

My own anticipation sank with the opening credits: "Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood." That list spelled out the plot: damaged veteran, middle-age girlfriend, young daughter. The Wrestler never rose above fight-movie bromides, never disspelled my gloom. The character stereotyping makes Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, by comparison, seem as swathed in moral twlight as Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers. The movie's serioso sentimentality is doubly strange since the script is by Robert Siegel, an ex-staffer of The Onion and co-writer of The Onion Movie. His old job was puncturing cliches; here he recycles them.

Story goes like this. Back in the '80s, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (real name: Robin Ramzinsky) was a hero-stud pro wrestler; he fought "the Ayatollah" top of the card at the Garden. But after 20 years on the downalator, his body ballooned with exercise, bloated with steroids and damaged with the death of a thousand cuts, Randy works tank towns for a few hundred bucks. He's been locked out of his Jersey trailer home for laggard payments. And to secure the fans' roving attention, his ring rivals are getting into extreme fighting; one fellow, who looks like an angry Ozark farmer, asks Randy if, during their bout, he can use a staple gun on his chest and back. That episode triggers a heart attack, and Randy is told never to wrestle again.

Anyone who's seen a boxing film will be able to predict the rest of The Wrestler. Randy gets one more chance: a 20-year rematch in Wilmington of his Ayatollah fight. Will he pass it up to save his life? (Not if there's gonna be an Act Three.) And the woman in his life — will Randy manage to connect with his estranged daughter (Wood), who hasn't forgiven him for abandoning her? (That's Act Two, where the only innovation is that the girl's mother is never mentioned). And will a local stripper, well played by Tomei, respond to his plaintive love and drive down to see what may be Randy's last fight? (Can't have a fight movie without a "Yo, Adrian!" moment.)

Aronofsky has been one of the few American directors whose movies upset the complacent status quo. Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain were demanding and rewarding in various ways: the first whacko, the second gritty, the third sumptuously romantic, and all marvelously dense with imagery. The Wrestler is the first Aronofsky film to be visually inert. His main camera habit is to follow Randy, just his imposing back, as he trudges through corridors toward another fight. (Martin Scorsese virtually patented that shot, in Raging Bull and Goodfellas). The trope does pay off later in the film, when Randy, briefly retired, winds up behind a deli counter. That's a deft touch, as is the easy camaraderie Randy shares with the other veteran showmen. But Aronofsky's main contribution was to lion-tame a jolting performance out of a forgotten hero.