March 12, 2009

Wrestling with the past

The Wrestler starts with a montage of Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke in his well-deserved Academy-Award nominated performance) news clippings and photos from his heydays. Cut to 20 years later where he barely makes his rent working at a local store, making public appearances at empty halls for photo ops and autograph-signing, and wrestling at local community centers (giving new meaning to the word weekend warrior). I am no fan of wrestling, but it was heartwarming to see how the wrestlers interact with each other before and after the matches. The matches are choreographed and discussed by the combatants, but the injuries are real. The camaraderie is even more real. I have newfound respect for professional wrestlers.

Randy shows his tender side whether he's advising up-and-coming wrestlers or checking up on his onstage adversary after the match, and when playing with the neighborhood kids. He frequents a local strip club, where he is enamored with Marisa Tomei as Cassidy/Pam. He is estranged from his daughter Stephanie Robinson (Evan Rachel Wood) and tries to make amends. His life begins to unravel after a medical emergency threatens to end his wrestling career.

Director Darren Aronofsky used a hand-held camera a lot, following Randy around and showing us a grainy world of faded glory. Jersey never looked so gritty. The scenes at the deli were especially amusing (I read that the customers were real customers) yet at the same time you feel distressed for this fallen hero. People have said that Mr. Rourke was only playing himself, as we all know how he fell out of Hollywood's favor with his self-destructive behavior. But his performance is outstanding, genuine, even spell-binding. At times I almost seemed to forget I was watching an actor, his character seemed so real. Ms. Tomei also gives a superb performance as the pragmatic stripper who wants a different life.

The plot is of course familiar, the down-on-his-luck has-been underdog wrestling with his inner demons. Randy is a flawed guy who's maybe not too bright but is likeable despite his many missteps in life. I like this rough little film for its honesty and emotional wallop. Up and down, sorrow and joy, despair and hope. I was cheering and pulling for the wrestler.


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