"The Wrestler"

Since I’m not a professional film critic, I often don’t get to see the Award Caliber movies until long after they’ve been reviewed a million times. Most movies that are shooting for Oscars aren’t released until just before the end of the year and many of them don’t go into wide release until the middle of January. This has positive and negative effects. For one thing, if a movie is bad and falls far short of its Oscar goals, I hear it in advance and can avoid wasting my time. But the flip side of that is if a film is getting a lot of critical praise, there’s always a chance that I’m going to expect far too much by the time I get the opportunity to see it. I confess that, going in, I was concerned that “The Wrestler” was going to fall into the latter category.

“The Wrestler” is the story of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a former WWF wrestling superstar who’s hanging on to the glory days by the thinnest of threads. Living in a trailer that he can’t always pay the rent for and working as a stocker at a grocery store, Randy is 20 years removed from his prime. His body bears the marks of years and years of abuse. “The Ram” lived fast and loose, snorting coke and injecting insane amounts of steroids while taking a beating each night in the ring. He is broken, bruised, and scarred.

Unlike many of his compatriots, Randy hasn’t given up on The Ring. His weekends are spent competing in the lower levels of “professional” wrestling, fighting up and down the Northeast coast. These matches are often held in veteran’s halls and elementary school gyms and feature alarming violence and equipment. While the fights are planned out ahead of time, the stunts are painful and many of the fights involve very real weapons. One fighter uses a staple gun to subdue and intimidate his opponent. Another litters the mat with barbed wire. Randy himself cuts his forehead with a razorblade to sell a stunt to the crowd. It’s a very brutal, desperate world that “The Ram” finds himself in. Yet the crowds love him and for however short the moment lasts, Randy needs the spotlight.

Whatever money Randy has, he spends on Cassidy, an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei) whose time he craves far more than her services. Cassidy will not allow Randy to get any closer than her other customers but it’s clear that part of her wants to. Randy would probably like to take Cassidy out of the situation she’s in but knows he wouldn’t be able to offer her much. The film takes us through a few months in Randy’s life as he struggles with becoming an average person, his health, and his severely strained relationship with a daughter he left behind.

“The Wrestler” isn’t an easy movie to take in. But some of the best movies in history aren’t easy to watch. Mickey Rourke is brilliant in what is almost a semi-autobiographical role. Director Darren Aronofsky had to fight tooth and nail with the studio to get Rourke in the film but in hindsight there isn’t anyone better suited to play “The Ram.” Rourke has in many ways lived the life of Randy “The Ram” and has the scars to prove it. He destroyed his career with drugs, steroids, and hard living and without this role would almost certainly be un-hirable, a waste of one of the more talented actors in his generation. This is more than his comeback film, this is his legacy, the role which will define his career no matter what great things may come his way in the future.

This film is not about professional wrestling, nor is it truly about Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Rather, it is a film about MAN and his eternal struggles. Everyone knows the man who can’t let go of the past. Whether it’s the former high school quarterback, the guy who’s paid the price for not finishing college, or a professional wrestler far past his prime, this is a familiar story, only highlighted with barbed wire and steroids. How does a man so used to being a superstar adapt to working a deli counter? And what does a man do when a doctor tells him he isn’t physically capable of doing the one thing that he finds affirmation in? These are the types of questions Aranofsky attempts to ask. He simply chooses professional wrestling to be his platform.

My one complaint about this film is the way it has been promoted. “The Wrestler” is being sold as tale of redemption or a comeback story but I think that’s misleading and the critics that have reviewed it so have missed the mark. This isn’t “Rocky Balboa” or any other sports movie in which the hero is getting one last shot at glory. Leading up to the inevitable “Last Big Fight” no one, including Randy, realistically believes that this is his chance to get back into the Big Time. Even if that were to happen and the movie were to end with “The Ram” jumping back into the ring with WWF (or WWE, or whatever it’s called these days), this movie wouldn’t be about that. Randy isn’t so much interested in a comeback as he is in going out on his terms. He wants to be Michael Jordan hitting the championship winning shot for the Bulls, not Patrick Ewing wearing number 6 for the Orlando Magic, barely making it up and down the floor. As he says toward the end of the film, this is where he belongs and he doesn’t want to let anyone or anything force him away from his place in life.

From a humanistic perspective, “The Wrestler” is heartbreaking because despite its over-the-top action, it is shockingly real. Yet despite the fact that there isn’t a traditional happy ending, it is a film that is more than worthwhile for its phenomenal study of LIFE, if not for the spectacular performance of its star.

Grade: A