I stopped watching wrestling when I was about 12 years old. My excuse was that I had grown out of believing that what I was watching was real and not completely staged. Watching grown men in their underpants pulling punches at each other didn't provide me with any entertainment anymore. Until recently I didn't understand how physically grueling it is for wrestlers, and how much of an emotional impact it can have on their lives. I never took the time to think of what their lives would be like in 2o years, when they are forced to give up the spandex and take normal jobs. The Wrestler is an answer to that very question. Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who in his hay day was one of the greatest wrestlers of a generation. But 20 years later, Randy finds himself living in a trailer park alone and working at a convenience store part time. Still, he wrestles as much as he can despite his increased age. But after a particularly bloody battle, Randy suffers a heart attack, leaving him incapable of handling any more matches. Having to give up the one thing in life that he loves, and also loves him back, Randy falls into a depression. He looks to his only friend, a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), for some guidance. But he knows, the only way he could ever be happy is if he can continue wrestling. The Wrestler is a deep and emotional accomplishment that several times brought tears to my eyes.
If you are a fan of the WWE and want to see this film because you expect a documentary on wrestling, you should go ahead and check yourself at the door. Much like the fighting took a back seat to anarchy in Fight Club, wrestling is a distant second to the true core of this film: a man searching for someone to want him. I could think of no actor better suited to this role than the unconventional Mickey Rourke. Early in Rourke's acting career, he did manage to garner attention from critics for his roles in The Pope of Greenwich Village and Barfly. But Rourke was a volatile man and was said to be out of control on set. He was also probably very confused because in his career he has turned down lead roles in Pulp Fiction, The Silence of the Lambs, Rain Man, and The Untouchables. In 1991, Rourke left acting to pursue a career in professional boxing. Over a four year span Rourke was never defeated and had only one draw. Upon his retirement in 1995, Rourke never really made big impact in his transition back to acting. But now in 2008 his luck seems to have finally arrived, and he gives the performance of his career in The Wrestler. Nicolas Cage was originally cast to play Randy, and thinking about that makes me laugh. Cage is a cool guy, but he would have destroyed this movie. Rourke was able to bring so much heart to this role, possibly because him and Randy are practically the same person. But Rourke proves he is no wash up, as he made my eyes well with tears numerous times. One particular scene I should highlight is when Randy reunites with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Randy pours his heart out to his daughter, and the result is a powerful scene that would make a rock's heart skip a beat. Rourke won a Golden Globe for his performance and has now been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. I would not be surprised if he won.
One of the many things that makes The Wrestler work is the stellar direction of Darren Aronofsky. There are so many scenes that I can remember that really struck me beautifully. My favorite was one continuous shot that followed Randy from his bosses office to the meat cutting station in the back of the convenience store where he works. As he walked, the camera slightly bounced up and down as if their was just a man with a handicam following him. During this long walk, a crowd is heard cheering, perhaps waiting for the arrival of Randy. He finally gets to the doorway of the station and stops, and the cheers grow louder. But as he steps through into the room, the crowd noise disappears, and he proceeds to perform his menial job. This exemplifies how overtaken Randy's life has become by his wrestling. The stark contrast between walking through a crowd of people who are screaming your name and then putting on latex gloves and a hairnet really drives the idea of the movie home.
The people in Randy's life, or the lackthereof, provide an extra dose of sentimentality without becoming too maudlin. In keeping with the theme of being washed up, Marisa Tomei plays a stripper passed her prime that doesn't get much business outside of Randy. I find this to be the only unbelievable part of the movie, because even though Tomei is 44, she is not even close to being passed her prime. She proves it in every single scene she is in. But Tomei is so much more than just the nude sidekick in this film. As Randy's only companion, she brings the only sympathy for him to the movie and does a great job doing so. Recently she grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role, an honor which I'm not so sure was deserved. She gave a great performance, but I didn't see anything award worthy from her. However, I do credit her character with creating some of the most memorable moments in the film. It is her idea that Randy try and contact his daughter Stephanie after his heart attack. In taking her advice, some truly fantastic scenes followed. One scene involves Cassidy helping Randy buy Stephanie a gift at a vintage clothing store. It is here that Randy first interacts with Cassidy outside of the strip club and the two get to know each other as people rather than her being a stripper and him being a customer. Evan Rachel Wood gives a strong turn as Stephanie, who was abandoned by her father and is now aggrevated with his return to her life. Wood is at her finest when she is telling off her dead beat father for the last time, and sends a pang of heartache to the viewer. Her attitude only makes you feel worse for poor Randy, who is genuinely trying to reform.
I didn't know what to expect from The Wrestler. My friend who is a big Mickey Rourke fan built the movie up so high when he told me about it that I was afraid it wouldn't be as effective when i finally watched it. Luckily it was, and I am so grateful I gave it a chance. Whether you are a fan of wrestling or not, it does not matter. The journey you go on to follow this man through his many trials will break your heart and make you appreciate all the things you have in life. My rating (9/10)