‘The Wrestler’: Yes, it’s that good

December 15, 2008

Ever since “The Wrestler” took home the heavyweight belt at the Venice Film Festival in September, the buzz has been loud and growing louder.

Cue the sold-out festival screenings in Toronto and New York.

Cue the Mickey Rourke profiles, paralleling his career crash and rebirth with that of his character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson.

Are we ready for the backlash yet?

Here’s what I’ll tell you: “The Wrestler” is as exciting, as brash – and yet as subtle and touching – as any movie I’ve seen in a long, long time. Rourke gives what might be the best performance of his career, one that his early work – when he was an icon of cool but rarely found a role worthy of his time – always hinted that he was capable of.

Don’t go in expecting something operatic or slick. This is a rough, slice-of-life independent film, with some predictable turns. It’s not melodrama; rather, it’s a character study of man in crisis and how he deals with it.

Yet the story is solid, filled with truth, built around Rourke’s creation: a gentle giant with a big (and damaged) heart, seeking a little meaning in a life that suddenly looks like one long cage match from which there is no escape.

Director Darren Aronofsky is working here in a raw, no-frills manner previously not in evidence in films such as “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain.” There’s a grainy, real-life feel to the footage as he follows Rourke, playing Randy “The Ram” Robinson.

Randy is a professional wrestler whose heyday was the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some of the stars of that era are still working and still stars – the Undertaker, Sean Michaels – and the rare few have gone on to bigger things. Only Hulk Hogan comes to mind.

But there are still plenty of guys like the Ram – clinging to the edge of that world, where the fans still recognize you but the big paydays are in the past. So they show up to mix it up in high school gyms and VFW posts, for the short money.

Things are so bad for the Ram that he’s been locked out of his mobile home by the trailer park manager for being behind on the trmy. The neighbor kids all love the big lug – and even they give him a hard time about the fact that he wants them to play with him on a first-gen Nintendo wrestling videogame in which he’s featured.

But he keeps plugging away, unloading meat at a local supermarket to make the rent, allowing himself to be stapled and cut to give the audience enough blood at a wrestling show. He gives tips to the up-and-comers, kibitzes with the fans – he’s a mensch in decline.

In so much decline, in fact, that one night, after a match, he collapses with a heart attack. When he comes to, he’s got a massive scar on his chest, the recipient of a heart bypass operation. He’ll be fine, the doctor tells him, but wrestling is a thing of the past.

It’s a wake-up call, one that summons ghosts of all the old regrets he’s stored away. He decides to get in touch with the daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) he barely knows, and is surprised to discover that she’s a lesbian. Initially wary, she agrees to talk to him – and spends a bittersweet day with him, slowly getting acquainted.

He also tries to build something with the stripper (Marisa Tomei) with whom he’s built a bantering relationship at the local strip club. Tomei is touchingly closed-off, flashing an inviting smile that lasts as long as the $20s do – but with a heart that the Ram actually seems to touch when he tries to connect as a human being, rather than a customer.

Aronofsky never hammers the emotion – and neither does Rourke. As inevitable as some of the plot turns seem, there’s an air of tragedy in the classic sense, as Randy finds himself trapped – by money needs, by his own bad habits – into trying to make one last ring comeback for the big payday, even if it kills him.

There have been amazing performances this year – Sean Penn in “Milk,” Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon,” Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor” – but few with the sheer physical force and commitment that Rourke brings to this role. From the juiced-up pecs to the frizzy hair extensions to the orangey tanning-booth glow to the hulking physicality, his presence is daunting. But he makes this guy a man-mountain with a soft center, smart enough to recognize his shortcomings and his mistakes.

And Rourke brings a surprisingly lively sense of humor to the role. That’s particularly apparent in a couple of scenes in which, to earn a paycheck, Randy has to put on a hairnet and white coat and work behind the meat counter at the supermarket where he usually hauls cargo. At first embarrassed, Randy suddenly reocgnizes that he’s found a new stage. Rather than a job, it turns into a performance.

“The Wrestler” sizzles with life and vitality. But it layers that with self-awareness, a sadness and regret that are hard to miss. It’s a magnificent performance; here’s hoping it’s the first of many for the revitalized Mickey Rourke.

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