Wrestling isn’t fake. It’s certainly staged, it’s undoubtedly scripted, but it’s all too real. Like a testosterone-laden, homoerotic soap opera, carefully crafted characters clash and co-mingle in relationships as torrid and dramatic as any musical. Only instead of breaking into song, they smash folding chairs over each other’s heads. With the wealth of real-life tragedy and legend that has surrounded the world of professional wrestling, it’s something of a small miracle that the first project to seriously plumb the pathos is not some exploitative bio-pic dredging up Owen Hart or Chris Benoit. Instead, thankfully, Darren Aronofsky gives us the messy and marvelous tale of a professional wrestler trying to gain glory one last time. Despite a few whiffs, The Wrestler manages to finish strong, earning well-deserved praise for its champion.
Around this time of year, the Oscars always shake loose some sort of existentialist fable of one man’s life in a preening attempt to gain golden accolades. Some A-lister spends most of a film recovering from a life-altering hardship, ultimately coming to terms with life and all its foibles after taking up 85 percent of a two-hour film. Normally, movies like About Schmidt or Cast Away give me the howling fantods, but The Wrestler manages to supercede the typical banality. The plot is exceedingly simple: Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a superstar of the 80’s WWF circuit, barely ekes out a living while trying to latch on to his last vestiges of fame. It’s a character study of an incredibly pathetic life, an athlete well past his prime still trying to stay in the game. Through health risks, near poverty, and numerous humiliations, Randy clings desperately to wrestling since it’s the only thing he knows.
The Wrestler lives and dies by the performance of Mickey Rourke, and it is something to behold. Robert D. Siegel’s script at times feels like an allegory for Rourke’s own less-than-glorious career. Randy is a hideous mess of a man, a sagging giant with peroxide-bleached Vince Neil hair and a turkey-basted tan. Mickey’s plastic-surgery ravaged pout, craggy face, and world-weary body add a depth to the character that no cinema star’s makeup-laden smile could have ever captured. Randy hasn’t so much lived the life of a wrestler as survived it. The young up-and-comers revere him as one who was in the show, the rabid fans adore him, and Randy’s managed to parlay 20-year old fame into a comfortable rut. What money he manages to scrape together from thrashing around in backwater civic centers and church halls, he spends on steroids, strippers, and maintaining his 80’s Jersey sheen instead of on his trailer rent, so he sleeps in his van.
Like modern-day aging rock stars who haven’t put out an album in years, Randy finds himself taking increasingly horrifying measures to draw the attention he so desperately craves. Randy has fallen to a third tier sideshow for hormonally deranged jackals in fatigues and Dragonball-Z button downs screeching for blood. True to the nature of the sport itself, Randy has to get crazier to make money. He ends up going through a hardcore match with a bespectacled redneck who stapleguns dollar bills to his own forehead. Aronofsky adeptly cuts between the match itself — with the slavering baboons chanting “Holy Shit” and “Kick His Ass” as the two men smash each other with lamps and barbed wire — and the backstage aftermath where EMTs tweeze tacks and shards of debris from the bleeding, wincing warriors.
While one would assume the most uncomfortable part of the film would be watching grown men in spandex hurl each other around in a clumsy ballet, it’s the moments when we watch Randy’s “real” life that are the most difficult to watch. The rest of the movie is spent with him sifting through the shards of his completely bottomed-out life, trying to fix what’s long been broken. Literally every aspect of his life falls apart. The characters surrounding Randy act mostly as the paraphernalia in the hardcore matches. While they enhance the hell out of the movie with their appearance — like a ladder and a table covered with barbed wire — they really have little less function than as devices with which Randy can destroy himself.
But, oh how they wound. Todd Barry is deliciously evil as the manager of the grocery store where Randy earns money during the week. He’s a snide balding douche, mocking the hell out of the big dumb galoot who slaves for him at the deli counter. Evan Rachel Wood shines as the daughter who wants no part of the man who wasn’t there for her growing up. Her role’s as cliched as a choke-slam, but she smashes the hell out of it for all it’s worth. Marisa Tomei is terrific as the aging stripper-mom who dotes on Randy because he’s one of the few guys still paying to see her sagging tits and crayon-inspired tattoos. One of the saddest moments in the movie comes when Randy spends what you know is rent money on lap dances so he can retell his old wrestling matches to her. He cares less about the ass in his face than what he used to be.
The Wrestler is a blisteringly uncomfortable film to watch, because it’s the story of a man who doesn’t know how to be anything else. Randy tries to abandon The Ram, but it’s all he ever was. What makes it so powerful of a performance is that you can see how he eagerly tries to be a normal guy, with a daughter, a girlfriend, and a steady job. But wrestling is something he can never escape. Wrestling was the one thing that kept him afloat, and even when it’s practically killing him to continue, he does. It’s the only thing in his life that matters and, by proxy, makes him matter. The final sequence is agonizing to watch, because you genuinely care about this affable loser. Rumor had it that Nicolas Cage was attached to be Randy the Ram, but this is Mickey Rourke’s film, both figuratively and spiritually. Rourke is a fallen star, a man who mauled himself in the name of drugs and craft, who keeps lumbering through projects like a lost bear. When Randy the Ram dons the tights to recapture glory, you feel a little like Mickey Rourke’s getting his last moment to shine as well.
Brian Prisco is a burger whisperer from the hills and valleys of North Hollywood, by way of the fiery streets of Philadelphia. When not casting his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in an attempt to make sense of this crazy little thing called love, he can be found with his nose in a book in an attempt to make a grown woman cry when he beats her in the Cannonball Read. You can pick a fight with him via email at .com or decipher his crazy ramblings at The Gospel According to Prisco. Hail Discordia!
The Wrestler / Brian Prisco
Film | December 30, 2008 | Comments ()