Saturday, February 28, 2009

What can I get ya, spring chicken?

The Wrestler is a movie for children of the eighties. Though the film's archetypal underdog story is surely familiar to audiences of any age, I suspect the film has particular resonance for anyone who grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whether one liked wrestling or not, it was a constant part of our lives - oh, to think of all those wasted hours getting my ass kicked at WWF Royal Rumble on SNES - and, like most ephemeral crap culture, a projection of the values that, as kids, we were just learning were ours to inherit. While pro wrestling is as popular as ever, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the titular character, is very much a product of an era when our heroes wore neon green pants and our villians had names like The Ayatollah. A walking anachronism living in the shadow of long-ago victories, Randy is of course played Mickey Rourke, that preternaturally gifted actor who, not too long ago, seemed like he was headed for the dustbin of history. That Rourke's story mirrors Randy's in many ways has been played up for months, but his performance is more than an act of pop-culture verisimilitude. Rourke's sensitivity, intelligence and complete lack of vanity, coupled the meticulously observed direction of Darren Aronofsky, create an unforgettable portrait of a man in tights (physically and emotionally!).

The excellent opening credits sequence, a collage of fliers and wrestling mags scored with Quiet Riot's "(Bang Your Head) Metal Health" (Randy's theme, which we'll hear throughout the film), gives us a glimpse of the height of Randy's celebrity before we're introduced to The Ram as an aging burlyman barely getting by on matches at small regional venues. Aronofsky's protagonists are frequently driven to obsessive lengths to recapture some perfect memory - a child's high school graduation, or a romantic walk in the snow - destroying themselves in the process. For Randy, the distant hope of "a ticket back to the top" drives him to put his body through incredible amounts of abuse for the sake of an ever-diminishing audience. Countless reviewers of The Wrestler have cited Barthes' essay on wrestling (and more felt the need to mention Marisa Tomei's breasts), and the film's scenes in the ring, particularly a punishing match with The Necrobutcher (playing himself), underline the sport's increasing nihilism. What makes Randy so poignant is that he's a one-trick pony (as Bruce Springsteen sings in the title track) who truly believes in the cliches behind wrestling - when he's driving around in his van listening to old metal ballads, his complete faith in the prefabricated values he embodies is unbelievably poignant. If the script by Robert Siegel, which finds Randy attempting to romance stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and repair his relationship with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), seems formulaic, it's only because Randy can only begin to understand his loneliness, regret and fear of anonymity through cliche. Armond White's complaint that the film is anti-spiritual completely misses the point - The Wrestler is about characters trying to find meaning in lives completely divorced from the real. It's perfect that, when Cassidy inevitably compares Randy to Christ, she's not referencing not the Bible but The Passion of the Christ.

What makes Rourke's performance so astonishing is his ability to take a character who is always, to some extent, performing, and allow us to glimpse the inarticulate despair underneath. When Randy attempts to reconcile with his daughter, we can tell that he's rehearsed this speech many times, but we also know that he means every word (Wood is excellent and underrated in a part mostly built on emotional traumas we never see). As the film follows Randy's every move, we come to see how his need to please the fans comes from a generosity of spirit - even when he's stuck working at a supermarket deli counter, he tries to give each customer a fun, memorable experience (like Paul Clark, I'd gladly watch another half-hour of deli scenes). At the same time, Randy's a self-pitying narcissist, and the film doesn't shy away from his worst moments. It's a credit to Aronofsky, though, that he never takes a condescending or judgemental approach to the character, asking only that we try to understand him. This approach extends to Cassidy, who doesn't get as much screentime but, thanks largely to Tomei's fantastic performance, we come to realize is hardly ever telling us (or Randy) what she's really feeling even as Tomei tells us everything we need to know about her - the conflict between her fear (like Randy) of losing the thing she's great at to age and her increasing acceptance of a life away from the security of a stage.

It'd be wrong to label the documentary-style filmmaking strategy - all handheld and available light - a return to Aronofsky's roots, because even when he his films were low-budget, they were never this stripped-down. It takes a great deal of confidence to abandon all directorial artifice and trust in the story and performances to carry the movie, and the approach pays off wonderfully here. As DP Maryse Alberti follows Randy into the harsh flourescent lights of his day job and the barely-lit club where Cassidy works, we're overwhelmed by the oppressive banality of Randy's life. When contrasted against the startling immediacy of the scenes in the ring, we start to understand why Randy is stuck in the past, even if that proves to be his undoing. The first time I saw The Wrestler, I found the conclusion frustrating, as there were several more appropriate resolutions for The Ram. Watching it again the other night, though the similarity to a certain series finale was still a bit distracting, I realized that, frustrating though it may be, it's the only ending that makes sense . Randy is never going to do the reasonable thing, and it's to Aronofsky and Rourke's great credit that we love him for it.

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