Saturday, December 20, 2008

Film Reviews: The Wrestler

Ring Cycles

by Anthony Lane
The New Yorker
December 15, 2008

Mickey Rourke as Randy (the Ram) Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s movie.

For some years, Mickey Rourke was just about my favorite movie star. This was not an easy stance to take. The body of the man’s work was dismayingly thin, and the body of good work, from “Rumble Fish” onward, could be counted on the knuckles of one fist. As for the body of the man, it swelled from taut and slender to something so bulbous and spongiform that those of us who had thrilled to Boogie, his cocky romancer in “Diner,” could only wince and look away. Yet I insist: there was a time when Rourke demanded to be looked at, catching and holding your eye no less grippingly than the young De Niro. Sweetness and menace were folded up in him—in the way that he angled himself at the world, as if both sure of his place within it and, deeper down, afraid that it might still spit him out. Hence the voice: never a bellow or a screech, nor yet a Brando-haunted mumble, but the soft croon of a conspirator; remember him as the arsonist for hire in “Body Heat,” forcing his employers to lean in close lest they miss his wicked meaning. That whisper of secrecy remained in Stanley White, with his stiff gray hair, his long coat, and his vows of judicial vengeance. Stanley was the cop whom Rourke played in “Year of the Dragon,” and everything about the project shouted overkill: script by Oliver Stone, direction by Michael Cimino, and a racial attitude that was designed to rile. But there was Rourke, holding steady at the core of the storm.

And now the voice is back. In “The Wrestler,” directed by Darren Aronofsky, Rourke is Robin Ramzinski, known to his admirers as Randy (the Ram) Robinson. The body is now a glistening mound of bruised and damaged goods, and the quiff of Stanley White has been replaced by a mop of ropy blond extensions that you could wipe the floor with. Twenty years ago, as the opening credits show, Randy was a star on the wrestling circuit, but the film follows him as he burns away. He lives in a trailer in New Jersey, except that, right now, he doesn’t; the landlord has locked him out for not paying the rent. Randy joshes with the local kids, and plays Nintendo with one of them—“a really old game,” according to the boy, who is used to Call of Duty. Such is modern senescence: to age as quickly as a video game. Randy still wrestles, but the cash is petty, and he boosts his income by heaving boxes at a supermarket. He has a friend, a stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), but she has no plans to be his girlfriend. Then, there is Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), his daughter, although they haven’t met in years. When they do hook up, things improve—too fast, it turns out, as if reconciliation were more of a dream than a practical goal. They book a dinner, but Randy gets drunk, misses the date, and loses her once more. “An old, broken-down piece of meat,” he calls himself. “I’m alone, and I deserve to be alone.”

To some extent, as that speech suggests, “The Wrestler” is as simple as its title. The pathos of personal ruin is an established trope, and the trick, as demonstrated by John Huston in “Fat City” and by Martin Scorsese in “Raging Bull,” is to stop it from sliding into the sentimental. Aronofsky doesn’t always succeed in this, and there are lines in Robert D. Siegel’s script that wave their symbolic purpose in the audience’s face: “It’s your heart—you need to start taking better care of it.” So says a hospital medic, when Randy is admitted, and undergoes bypass surgery, after collapsing in the wake of a bout. It’s O.K., Doc, we get the point. But the movie, like its hero, manages to yank itself back into shape, and that, it strikes me, is mostly due to Rourke. When Randy goes home after the operation, and peels off his bandage, the camera zooms in to inspect the scar on his chest, whereas what really pinches our attention is his harmless habits: the mild, uncomplaining manner in which he pops in a hearing aid or adjusts his reading spectacles. He may be one of the last people in movies to use a pay phone. This fellow is mutton dressed as Ram, and he knows it, and, if he earns the caress of our pity, that is precisely because he never stoops to beg for it.

Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mickey Rourke with Darren Aronofsky, the director.

There is no denying the brutality of “The Wrestler,” and some of the scenes in the ring, especially those which provoke the cardiac arrest, are hard to watch. The movie comes off as inoffensive, however, since, unusually for these times, it trades in violence cleansed of ill will. The wrestlers are a club, greeting one another as brothers in arms, or in headlocks; one of them cheerfully sells Randy almost a thousand dollars’ worth of steroids and other drugs, and, in place of the hypocritical masking that bedevils major sports, there is a peculiar honesty, almost a decorum, running beneath the overcooked beefcake and the staged aggression of the fights. “What do you want to do tonight?” one opponent asks Randy, as if inviting him to the theatre, before proposing that he enliven that evening’s bout by puncturing his rival with a staple gun. You could call them cardboard characters, pierced and flattened for the delight of the crowd, but Aronofsky cast the minor roles with real wrestlers, and you believe in every scourging of the flesh.

For all that, the best sequence in the film, even more likely to lodge in your mind than the soaring sadness of the climax, takes place not on the wrestlers’ canvas, with its carpet of blood and broken glass, but at the deli counter of the supermarket. Here Randy, needing the money, dons a protective hairnet and doles out pasta salad. He even pins on a name tag that says “Robin,” randiness being too rich for this clientele. The dent to his pride is profound, more wounding than any professional blow to the head, and the scene closes in agony, as he takes out his frustration on a meat slicer. But here’s the thing: while the job lasts, he’s pretty good at it, bringing a brief shaft of pleasure to the customers, and suffering any taunts that come his way. What Rourke offers us, in short, is not just a comeback performance but something much rarer: a rounded, raddled portrait of a good man. Suddenly, there it is again—the charm, the anxious modesty, the never-distant hint of wrath, the teen-age smiles, and all the other virtues of a winner. No wonder people warmed to Randy Robinson twenty years ago. I felt the same about Mickey Rourke, and I still do.




By Kyle Smith
New York Post
December 17, 2008

WHEN "The Wrestler" calls himself "a broken-down piece of meat," he is being too generous. He's what's left of an '80s pro-wrestling icon - markdown Rapunzel hair, a face like a tenderized orange, a voice box like a muffler being dragged down the turnpike. He lives in a trailer park in New Jersey, and not one of the nicer ones. He is played, with crumpled glory, by the ghost of Mickey Rourke.

Randy "The Ram" Robinson (ne Robin Ramzinsky) has a tale of woe as pumped with cliche as the film's hero is with steroids. His girl is a stripper (Marisa Tomei), his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) hates him, his home is a trailer, his ride a serial killer's van. He's got a bum ticker. What else? Oh, he wants to pull it all together for a big rematch with his arch rival.

Yet some voodoo of craftsmanship and purity - I can't decide whether it's in Robert Siegel's original script or Darren Aronofsky's direction - makes "The Wrestler" as irresistible as a headlock. It's all been done a thousand times, but seldom done well. Aronofsky, previously an imagineer of aggressively weird pictures such as "Pi" and "The Fountain," proves a master of trailer-park realism - scuffed, funny and human.

For a movie whose element is lap dances at "Cheeques" and guys named "Mr. Magnificent" and "the Funky Samoans," "The Wrestler" is as precise with its details as a lyric poem. The fighting is brief but crucial. There are only about 12 minutes of ring action, and as shoddy as it is, it may make you see these turnbuckle clowns in a different light. How "fake" will your bruises be after you fall backwards off an 8-foot ladder onto a card table covered with barbed wire? When was the last time your pectoral muscles sustained an insult by staple gun? Compared to these guys, boxers are as soft as Camembert.

What the movie is really about is its people, the kind of citizens who affix posters of singing groups to their walls (AC/DC for Randy; Vampire Weekend for his daughter). It's about the antediluvian video game that stars (and is still played by) the Ram, and the spectators (meaty guys in football jerseys and gold chokers, a fan with an artificial leg who begs Randy to club an opponent with it) who still attend Randy's bouts. A slut in an animal-print jersey at a bar in Rahway wants to know if Randy likes to party - "like, a fireman party" - and the meaning turns out to be perfectly clear, if hilarious.

Randy is human hair metal, and hearing "Round and Round" in a bar with a pretty girl is as close to feeling good as he'll ever get, a flash of life "before that Cobain p - - - y had to come along." Another high point is a bit of random joy that comes when Randy accepts a job in a deli. Being a showman, he works the crowd: "Whatcha havin', good-lookin'?" he says to a little mole man whom he commands to drop back to catch a touchdown pass of egg salad.

Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler"

I'd call this Rourke's Oscar scene, except the whole movie is his Oscar scene. He dances with his daughter in a deserted ballroom by the boardwalk, he winces as he slices open his own forehead in a fight, he sits at a folding table in a nearly empty room trying to sell Polaroids of himself posing with fans for eight bucks.

Rourke is a landfill of a man, as brilliantly dismal as the Bruce Springsteen song (sure to win an Oscar) that closes the film. You can't cry because he's too funny, and you can't laugh because he's too tragic. As for Tomei, her street sweetness still purrs like a Trans Am, but there is a problem with her playing a fading stripper: her body. She shows us all but about three square centimeters of it, and it's in mint condition.

Thanks in part to a cleverly ambiguous ending that allows you to walk away in whatever mood you like, "The Wrestler" offers something to pretty much everyone in the audience. Much like "The Sopranos," it creates a world that might make you feel utterly at home or exhilarated by strange horrors. Maybe both.


Wins the belt.

Running time: 107 minutes.

Rated R (wrestling violence, nudity, drug abuse, profanity).

At the Lincoln Plaza, the Sunshine.

Hard Knocks, Both Given and Gotten

The New York Times
Published: December 17, 2008

This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The Times.

Niko Tavernise/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Neither bird nor plane, Mickey Rourke’s character is a choreographed pro wrestler who offers more entertainment than sport.

Everyone knows professional wrestling is fake. Everyone knows the same about movies. In both cases the eager spectators simultaneously admire the artifice and pretend it isn’t there, allowing themselves to believe that those people down in the ring or up on the screen are truly inflicting pain on one another.

“The Wrestler,” Darren Aronofsky’s fourth feature (and winner of the top prize at the Venice Film Festival this year), cannily exploits this parallel and at the same time shows that, in both movies and wrestling, the line between reality and play-acting may be less clear than we assume. Shooting his battered hero mainly in trudging, hand-held tracking shots, Mr. Aronofsky, whose earlier movies include the brain-teasing “Pi” and the swooning, fantastical, unwatchable “Fountain,” here makes a convincing show of brute realism.

The supermarkets, trailer parks, V.F.W. halls and run-down amphitheaters of New Jersey are convincingly drab, and the grain of the celluloid carries a sour and salty aura of weariness and defeat. But the story that emerges is disarmingly sweet, indeed at times downright saccharine — a familiar parable of squandered hopes and second chances. It’s a bit phony, perhaps, but to refuse to embrace the movie’s deep hokiness would be to cheat yourself of some of the profound pleasure it offers.

Randy (the Ram) Robinson, played with sly, hulking grace by Mickey Rourke, is anything but a phony, in spite of the fact that nothing about him is quite genuine. His real name, which he can’t stand to hear, is Robin Ramsinski; his muscles are puffed up with steroids, and it’s highly doubtful that his flowing mane is naturally blond. But this careful fakery is, to some extent, what certifies Randy as the real thing, an authentic, passionate, natural performer. The description fits Mr. Rourke as well.

Back in the 1980s, both the real actor and the fictional wrestler were superstars. (A monologue eulogizing that decade and cursing the one that followed has an obvious and piquant double meaning; that the speech is addressed to the character played by Marisa Tomei, whose career hit some snags of its own in the later ’90s, makes it all the more touching.)

Mr. Rourke was a tenderhearted tough guy with a crooked smile and a gentleness that came through even tough-guy poses and bad movies. Randy, meanwhile, was a giant in the world of pro wrestling, inspiring action figures and video games and plying his brutal trade in top arenas like Madison Square Garden.

Now, 20 years later, he — Randy, that is — has been relegated to shabbier halls. He has trouble making the rent on his trailer, and his health is failing. His professionalism, however, is undiminished, and the most moving and persuasive scenes in “The Wrestler” show the Ram backstage with the men who are his comrades and rivals, working out the finer points of their routines with a warmth and respect completely at odds with the viciousness they display in the ring.

Evan Rachel Wood and Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler"

With a younger wrestler, Randy is warm and avuncular, praising the kid’s ability and urging him to stay in the game. Others, many of them played by active or retired real-life wrestlers, he refers to without affectation as “Brother.”

While the fights are choreographed, the pain and the blood are frequently real. We are privy to tricks of the trade, like the tiny bit of razor blade that Randy uses to open a cut on his face in the middle of a bout. And we witness a horrifying match involving broken glass, barbed wire and a staple gun, all of it agreed upon by the combatants.

We also understand that every fight is a miniature morality play. At one point Randy and an adversary sit in chairs, trading slaps across the face. When the designated bad guy lands a blow, the crowd boos; when he’s on the receiving end, it cheers. The basic rule is laid out succinctly by an old nemesis of Randy’s: “I’m the heel, and you’re the face.”

About that face. Mr. Aronofsky takes his time showing it, trailing behind Mr. Rourke and allowing us sidelong glances for the first few minutes of the film, before disclosing the battered, lumpy yet still strangely beautiful wreck of what we remember from “Diner” or “The Pope of Greenwich Village.” Damaged, tired, ill used as he may be — or maybe not! movies aren’t real! — Mr. Rourke is still, in the wrestling sense of the word, the face, the magnetic pole of our interest, the guy we’re rooting for.

But Randy is also, outside the ring, something of a heel. He is estranged from his daughter, Stephanie, (Evan Rachel Wood), whose anger when he tries to reconcile suggests some major mess-ups in the past. He also has a crush on a stripper known as Cassidy (Ms. Tomei), whose lap dances and friendly chitchat he interprets as signs of reciprocated interest.

The news that Ms. Tomei plays a stripper may make you roll your eyes — it may, for that matter, make them pop out of your head — but her job is more than an excuse to get exposed flesh other than Mr. Rourke’s up on the screen. Randy and Cassidy (it’s not her real name, either) are both performers, both expert at faking something the customers desperately want to believe is real. The wrestlers don’t really hate one another, and the stripper doesn’t really love you.

The fact that Randy doesn’t quite get that when it comes to Cassidy — and yet senses that they do something in common — is part of his appeal. He’s not that smart, really, but he has a genuine gift. And parts of “The Wrestler,” which was written by Robert D. Siegel, are dumb in their own way, or rather in the way that so many movies are. The Randy-Stephanie subplot is unpersuasive, and the last few twists of the Randy-Cassidy romance verge on the preposterous. But like its hero, the movie has a blunt, exuberant honesty, pulling off even its false moves with conviction and flair.

“The Wrestler” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has fake bloodshed and real nudity.


Opens on Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky; written by Robert D. Siegel; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Andrew Weisblum; music by Clint Mansell; production designer, Tim Grimes; produced by Mr. Aronofsky and Scott Franklin; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

WITH: Mickey Rourke (Randy), Marisa Tomei (Cassidy) and Evan Rachel Wood (Stephanie).

1 comment:

Craig Daliessio said...

I've heard nothing but great reviews about this movie. May have to go see this one.