Opening today in a grand total of four (yup, 4) theaters is Darren Aronofsky’s latest assault on your sense of complacency and well-being, The Wrestler, starring an astonishingly good Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei as the titular down-and-out pro wrestler and the object of his affections (respectively). Far less an ‘underdog makes good’ genre exercise as it is a deceptively complex (if heartbreaking) slice of life, almost documentarian take on a man whose past glories (and transgressions) have left a gaping hole in his life as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson is forced to take stock of himself after suffering a heart attack following a nauseatingly brutal ECW style fight on the bargain indie wrestling circuit.
You see, Randy was once on top of the world, living a Hulk Hogan-esque dream at the top of the wrestling world with bouts at the Madison Square Garden, and his poverty-ridden has-been status has been pushed out of mind by with the force of his showman’s charm and optimism, but once he’s forced to recover from his bypass Randy is brutally reminded that his weekend warrior lifestyle has left him not only estranged from his (rightfully) distrustful daughter (an unexpectedly powerful Evan Rachel Wood, who should make the Best Supporting list on her three scenes alone), but with not a single soul to call his friend. His attempts to reach out to aging stripper and single mother Pam (Tomei, who goes a long way towards erasing any ‘My Cousin Vinny’ memories with this role) are alternately accepted and rebuffed as Pam navigates an uneasy border-crossing with Randy from lap-dance customer to courter.
The depths of genuine pathos and humanity in this film are all the more astonishing when you realize that the writer (Robert D. Siegel) was one of the founding editors of the nothing-is-sacred satire paper (and internet juggernaut) The Onion, but Aronofsky has a long history of spending time in the corners of obsession (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain), and Randy’s seemingly inability to cope without live drenched in the attention and applause of an adoring audience seems an ideal pairing. Oddly enough, Pam and Randy might be the first Aronofsky leads that it’s almost impossible NOT to root for. Rourke infuses his longing-for-the-good-old days aged wrestler with ample charm (and yeah, he’s still got that smile) that makes you want the best for a guy who really has no one to blame but himself for his troubles, and watching Randy gear up for that return to the ring stirs up all those underdog feelings that make sports films a time-honored feel-good remedy. Tomei’s Pam feels for all the world like a genuine human being whose dreams have slipped through her fingers, and the twists and turns she puts Randy through feel like the natural reaction of a woman who has spent most of her adult life as nothing more than an object and can’t quite set the battered emotional armor aside when presented the opportunity.
Quite frankly I can’t praise this film highly enough. Each scene unfolds on its own, and delving too deeply into the ‘plot’ would damage the impact that resides within, popping out unexpectedly like a surprise tag in a grudge match. Rourke and Tomei are simply phenomenal, and Rachel Wood’s scenes with Rourke resonate in a way that made this father-of-two just crumple up inside at the thought of all that lost time and scarred over hurt. Cinematically, Aronofsky’s approach of hand-held cameras never once feel like a gimmick, and it’s the documentary feel of the film that makes this story all the more powerful.
Today’s ridiculously limited engagement for The Wrestler is 100% Oscar-consideration driven (because a film must have been shown in a public theater in 2008 for it to be eligible for the Oscars in Feb), but in this case I’m completely on board with the idea. In a year that’s been utterly dominated by tent pole Summer blockbusters, this shot-in-35 days low-fi wonder is an achingly beautiful reminder to the power of film and storytelling.
The Wrestler – 5 Stars and some serious Oscar love.