There's a terrific scene in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler in which Mickey Rourke, as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is assigned to deli counter duty at the supermarket where he works stocking shelves. Even with his thinning Vince Neil locks under a hair net, he works the room like a champion huckster--charming the ladies, patiently doting on an indecisive old biddie, chucking "long bombs" to the guys. Years in the ring (along with too much booze, drugs, and steroids) have eroded Robinson's physique and his health, but not his capacity to excite a crowd. It makes you realize how much you've missed that Mickey Rourke--the Reagan era's once magnetic heir to Brando and Pacino until he blew his ride on an ego-fueled bender that had him plummeting from one bad career choice to another...
The Wrestler is being trumpeted as a comeback not only for Rourke, but also for the director himself. I’m not sure why—since his debut with the homemade mathematics oddity Pi a decade ago, Aronofsky hasn’t been the most prolific filmmaker, but he’s been busy, mostly with efforts that have hit a variety of detours. After the innovative and acclaimed Hubert Selby adaptation Requiem For A Dream, he announced his "Batman: Year One" project, which became Nolan’s reboot. Then, he took a kick at Watchmen, before being usurped by Paul Greengrass, who was usurped by Zach Snyder. Then, of course, there was the first incarnation of The Fountain, which saw its production halted, sets dismantled in Australia, and megamillions wasted when headliner Brad Pitt left the production.
Somewhere along the line, he campaigned to direct an episode of Lost. The one pursuit that wasn't in vain was his engagement to actress Rachel Weisz, with whom he eventually made The Fountain opposite Hugh Jackman.
Perhaps, then, the comparatively uncluttered dramatics and kitchen sink milieu of The Wrestler appealed to a filmmaker usually consumed with--and probably exhausted by--big themes and grand visions that would've taxed Kubrick. It's the first film Aronofsky hasn't had a part in writing himself (the screenplay is by Robert D. Siegel), but thematically, it's a fit: it's another tale of a marginilized obsessive consumed by his addiction.
Randy Robinson--born Robin Ramzinksi--works weekdays at a New Jersey supermarket and spend his weekends on the regional wrestling circuit, struggling through matches in school gyms and low-rent venues for a percentage of the door and a reminder of his former glory. Back in the 80s, he was the subject of compilation videos, a WWF video game, and even spawned his own action figure. Well into middle-age now, he pumps his battered body with steroids and can barely take the blows he choreographs with the young bucks hoping for a shot at his former stardom. Once in a while he persuades one of the kids in the trailer park to take him on in a round of Nintendo, but they're not impressed by their neighbour in 8-bit mode. His truck radio blares the hits of Cinderella and Ratt--from cassette tapes, no less.
When he suffers a heart attack after a fight, Randy takes stock of his life and attempts to woo the stripper with whom he's spent too much money and many platonic nights: Cassidy (Tomei) is also well-past forty and a single mom, and welcomes Randy's sincere, if aggressive, attentions and protection from the college rabble. He also seeks to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Stephanie), now college-age but still harbouring heartbreak over his absence. He follows her home and offers a gift--a hideous jacket he's picked out (despite Cassidy's protests)--and after a bitter, cathartic exchange, Stephanie agrees to meet her father for dinner. But he never shows up--he misses the date for a last minute match and a drunken tryst with some groupies. Randy tortures himself over his stupidity--but the ring and whatever-passes-for-an-adoring-crowd are an addiction that clouds his better judgement.
Then along comes the tempting offer of a twentieth anniversary rematch against The Ayatollah, with whom he once clashed at Maple Leaf Gardens. While Randy has been warned another fight could kill him, this could be his legacy for Cassidy, Stephanie, and his fans...
The Wrestler in many ways is another straightforward palooka melodrama ala The Champ and of course, Rocky. But it's a unique environment for a sports movie: not the Vince McMahon Pay-Per-View spectacles merchandised out the wazoo, but the low-rent rasslin' I saw on TV as a kid, when beefy, unbuff galoots would knick their skulls with razor blades so the wounds would open during the match and the blood would splatter the old ladies in the front row.
Siegel and Aronofsky stage some absorbing "fly on the wall" moments with the fighters backstage, many of whom discuss their craft with the seriousness and devotion of Cirque Du Soleil acrobats and the extremes to what they'll put themselves through to entertain even a spottily-attended house--metal chairs, broken glass, barbed wire, and then there's the staple gun--earned my begrudging respect.
Rourke invests the role with a commitment that rightly has been drawing parallels to DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull but with nary a trace of New York-honed "method"--rather, the performance brims with authenticity that could only come from having lived a life not too far removed from the one imagined onscreen. Aronofsky delays showing us his face (the first few scenes play out terrifingly like a body slam version of Gus Van Sandt's Elephant) but after the opening credits that chronicle Randy's--and Rourke's--once haughty starpower, it's a shock when we finally see him revealed as a shambling, leathery, peroxided hulk to whom even the most minor physical movement seems to sear him with pain . For me, it harkened back to his nuanced performance as Johnny Handsome from Walter Hill's underrated 1988 crime drama, as a man whose soul was fractured than his surface appearance.
Notable, too, is the support from Tomei, on a career resurrection of her own after her strong turn in Sidney Lumet's Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, who brings a defiant dignity to what could've been a hackneyed "hooker with a heart of gold" role (they're clearly made for each other--80s relics both who blame Kurt Cobain for ruining the party).
In his intro, Aronofsky remarked that all one needs to make a good film is "a lens and good performers". And, I'd add, a director as willing to dive off the ropes as his protagonist . Rourke rewards that risk by giving The Wrestler his all--body, and soul...
© Robert J. Lewis 2008