Greetings from Asbury Park: The Wrestler ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 17, 2009)

I witnessed something you don’t see very often on TV, on  last Sunday’s 2008 Golden Globes Awards. Sincerity. Mickey Rourke took to the stage to accept his statue for his performance in The Wrestler, and delivered one of the most heartfelt monologues never penned by a screenwriter (i.e., it was  sans the usual mawkish Hollywood bullshit that you usually hear on an awards show).

The parallels between Rourke’s real-life redemption story and that of the character he plays in the film  hit me like a freight train running through the middle of my head, and I felt a lump in my throat. “Jesus H.,” I told myself, “…it’s only a stupid awards show,” but by the time Rourke proffered “Sometimes when you’re alone…all you got is your dog,” and then thanked all of his pooches (past and present) I was done for. I haven’t cried like that since  I saw Old Yeller.

It’s funny. As the lights went down in the theater at the screening of the film I had attended the night before, I had no clue that Bruce Springsteen had penned an original tune for The Wrestler (it isn’t heard  until the closing credits). Yet, from the first moment Mickey Rourke shambled onscreen as the fading, world-weary wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, I thought to myself, “This guy just walked right out of a Bruce Springsteen song!” More specifically:

 I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra

I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova

I could walk like Brando right into the sun

Then dance just like a Casanova

Rourke walks like Brando right into the kliegs and gives the performance of a lifetime in director Darren Aronofsky’s grim and gritty character study (scripted by Robert D. Siegel). When I say “grim and gritty”, I’m not kidding. This film ain’t exactly a day at the beach, or even a quick stroll out on the boardwalk to grab a knish.

“The Ram” is a semi-retired, down-on-his-luck pro wrestler, reduced to co-billing at the odd exhibition match or autograph-signing down at the Legion Hall. He lives alone in a trailer park, where he occasionally gets locked out for coming up short on the rent.

Still, he remains amiable and gracious; whether playing the “gentle giant” clowning around with neighborhood ki, or offering backstage advice and encouragement to young wrestlers. Nonetheless, his pained, ravaged road map of a face can’t hide an undercurrent of quiet desperation. After a health scare puts the kibosh on plans for a career comeback, he comes face-to-face with his mortality.

He reaches out to a stripper, with whom he has been hoping to develop a personal relationship (Marisa Tomei, in a wonderful performance). She is quite fond of him, but keeps a professional distance (she doesn’t date “customers”). She encourages him to re-establish a relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), which may be his toughest match-up yet.

There are really two films here. One is a fascinating, realistic backstage glimpse at pro wrestling; the camaraderie, the carefully orchestrated stagecraft, its kitschy cult of personality and the peculiarly devoted fans who fuel it.  Even though it’s common knowledge that most of the violence is “faked” in this sport, Aronofsky and his technical crew really make you feel Rourke’s “pain” in these fictional matches, particularly when he comes up against a competitor who peppers his upper torso with a staple gun.

The documentary-like feel is undoubtedly due to the fact that the cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, has been the DP for a number of documentaries (Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, Taxi to the Dark Side, and most notably, When We Were Kings).

The second narrative centers on the rekindling of the father-daughter relationship. This part of the story is more boilerplate; but clichés  are overshadowed by the outstanding performances.  Aronofsky has previously shown a propensity for style over substance; I have to credit him  for reining in that tendency this time out and allowing his actors to stretch and breathe  (I thought his junkie-chic drama Requiem for a Dream  was the most pretentious, overrated and unpleasant film in recent memory. I forgive him now).

Sensitive viewers  be aware that there are many squirm-inducing moments; while Aronofsky has toned his visceral, “in-your-face” tendencies down a notch or two, some of the mayhem portrayed in the wrestling matches is still potentially upsetting. Those caveats aside, I would recommend this film to strangers. It’s that good (I’m sure Mickey would appreciate the support). Then again, you could save the $10, and instead enjoy a quiet night at home with your dog.

I think Mickey would be cool with that plan, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.