‘Wrestler’ " grappling with reality | AspenTimes.com

‘Wrestler’ " grappling with reality

Ty Burr
The Boston Globe/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado
Niko TaverniseMickey Rourke stars in "The Wrestler."

At first “The Wrestler” keeps Mickey Rourke’s face hidden from us, as if to spare us the awful details. The opening credits have blasted us with a collage of 1980s wrestle-mania playbills and newspaper articles, scored to a screeching assault of hair-metal, and then we cut to a huddled, silent figure in a post-match changing room. The title says it all: “20 Years Later.”

Darren Aronofsky’s new film, from a script by Robert D. Siegel, succeeds because it keeps its ambitions small and realizes every one of them; in a year of overblown Oscar tripe, this is blessed news. “The Wrestler” is a character study, no more and no less, yet it’s open-ended enough to function as many things: a “Rocky” with its illusions tenderly separated from the bone; a requiem for an ’80s heavyweight that reaches back to the live TV dramas of the ’50s and the boxing films of the ’30s; a eulogy for a decade and a “sport”; the resuscitation of Mickey Rourke, actor.

The last is the most immediately startling, because Rourke is simply no longer recognizable as himself. Gone is the switchblade profile of “Barfly” and “Diner”; gone, too, the pompously transfixing “street” poetry of Rourke’s ’80s performances. (I still treasure his line-reading of “I buy and sell money. Some people call it … arbitrage,” from “9F Weeks.”)

Here, a has-been playing a has-been, Rourke is a swollen, putty-faced remnant of his own past, his scarred visage a map of downward trajectory. Yet he opens up himself and his gift with the generosity of a man who has been granted a second chance and fully understands what that means.

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In the world of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, second chances don’t happen. Two decades ago, he was headlining Madison Square Garden; today he’s living in a trailer and unloading trucks at the local market. On weekends he picks up spare change in small-time bouts staged in gyms and at American Legion halls across greater New Jersey.

These are filmed with a grungy, honest immediacy that, after all these years, admits to pro wrestling’s hokey fraud. Backstage, the performers greet each other affectionately and choreograph their matches; then they go into the ring and pound the hell out of each other. “The Wrestler” is not for the fainthearted ” not with its exposi of “blading” and the “hardcore” sequence in which The Ram and another wrestler (Dylan Summers, a.k.a. Necro Butcher) go at each other with staple guns, barbed wire, and panes of glass ” but neither will it be on WWE chairman Vince McMahon’s Netflix queue any time soon.

Why does Randy go through with it? Because the fans are there ” older and fewer but still seeking autographs at $8 per ” and because without their adulation he wouldn’t exist. Everything else – straight jobs, families, the morning after ” is what guys like him became wrestlers to get away from.

So Randy has a grown daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) whose rage toward him has the force of a blunt instrument; she’s the one opponent who will never let him up off the mat. His only other emotional connection is with Pam (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper whose stage name is Cassidy and who understands far better than The Ram the tensions between selling a persona and living in reality. Both use their bodies for the fantasies of others, but only Pam sees that when the body fails, the fantasy goes with it. (Tomei gives a brave and scrupulously honest performance, one that’s most naked when Pam has her clothes on.)

Randy, by contrast, is locked in the past, and you never really blame him. Rourke makes this punch-drunk behemoth absurdly touching as he plays an ancient video game starring himself or hands out Randy “The Ram” action figures to local kids who couldn’t care less. We see him tending the ruined temple that is his body: maintaining his long, once-golden mane of hair, going for tanning sessions, jabbing himself in the buttocks with steroids. The brand still pays, in illusions if not money.

Director Aronofsky has made a name for himself with frenetically edited downer dramas like “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.” “The Wrestler” is a work of documentary realism next to those films, shot in a wintry, unforgiving New Jersey. Still, it’s nice to see the whiz kid ease up and tell a story straight. There are smart, sardonic touches that breathe life into the movie, like the crowd noise that erupts in Randy’s head as he walks the supermarket hallway to his new job on the deli counter. Rourke gets the humor of that scene, riffing on the incongruity of an ex-grappler slicing beef instead of slamming it on the mat. This performance has a gentleness ” an almost Zen-like acceptance of collapsed expectations ” that comes close to breaking your heart.

But you also understand why Randy can’t let go of the life. With its grown men bellowing like comic book heroes and villains, pro wrestling has always been a cartoon, and that’s the appeal to performers and fans alike: It absolves life’s complexities with a turnbuckle to the skull. “The Wrestler” is about the seductions of superficiality and the dull ache of living beyond one’s moment. It stares with compassion at the man pinned on the mat and wonders how he’ll ever get out of this one.

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