Monday, January 19, 2009

The Wrestler: Going "Beyond the Mat"

If you're used to seeing Ed Asner as gruff TV news director Lou Grant, you'll see a different side of him in The Wrestler. He's a promoter who is trying to stave off the mob while deciding whether to let a wrestling legend get his chance at the world championship.

Oh, wait, it's not 1974 anymore. It's 2009, and wrestling is much, much different than it was. There's cable TV, Hollywood-style lighting, and people who are larger than life. On the other side, there's Randy "the Ram" Robinson. He used to be a big deal when Wrestlemania and Starrcade were both new. Now, he's older, deaf in one ear, a broken down piece of meat as he'd say. Wrestling is all he knows.

This is The Wrestler, the one that literally brought Mickey Rourke back from the dead. He is just heartbreaking as Randy, a guy who tries to relive past glories because he has so few current ones. When we first meet him, he's sitting a classroom, recovering from his latest bout. He's behind on the rent, but is still plugging away. He's also an occasional customer to Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who has also seen better days. They're two aging people, wondering what kind of future is ahead of them.

Quite a difference from that other Wrestler movie, isn't it? You might say it's a companion piece to the classic documentary Beyond the Mat, since Randy's story is actually based on Jake "the Snake" Roberts. Now, Rourke is just incredible as Randy. Somewhere in that broken body is a good soul. However, the body also includes some demons who threaten his well-being.

The man behind this drama is Darren Aronofsky. He does a wonderful job showing Randy's journey from ring to ring, and how a man can slowly rise while falling fast. Just notice where Randy wrestles at the beginning, and where he winds up at the end. It may look like he's climbing, but we forget about the inevitable fall.

Sitting at an autograph room, he looks at other aging wrestlers who are in worse shape than he is. Surely that's enough to get him into thinking about another line of work. He does try by working at a local supermarket. He tries to mend fences with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). He hopes to get closer to Cassidy, as they share a beer and a kiss. But she is wary about getting closer because of her job.

It's interesting what while she does her lap dance for a customer, it's just for money, not for the cheers. With Randy, it's all for the roar of the crowd that he wrestles. Aronofsky illustrates this in the scene where Randy enters the deli counter the same way he enters a match. The cheers are in his head until the plastic curtain parts. When he gets a chance for a 20th anniversary rematch against the Ayatollah, who's now a used car dealer, the chance for one last piece of glory is hard to resist. As they say, Randy's spirit is willing, but his flesh is getting weaker.

While Rourke is getting a lot of praise for his work in this movie, I thought his scenes with Wood were more impressive than his ones with Tomei. They have interesting scenes together, both in bars, but Wood was really good. That being said, Tomei is in incredible shape, and is also heartbreaking as Cassidy. She would like to get closer to Randy, maybe to give him another place to be.

This story could be about an aging boxer or a football player (remember Charlton Heston in "Number One"?). Sometimes the aging athlete doesn't come back just in time to make the winning score. He comes back, but the finish isn't always happy.

Oscar Nomination Day is less than three days away, and it's a lock Rourke will make the final cut for Best Actor. Will he win? Well, let me say They'll applaud the comeback, but not the performance because it's not the type of role that gets Oscars. Besides, competing against Nixon (Frank Langella), Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) and a guy who ages in reverse (Brad Pitt) might be too tough. If I am wrong, so much the better, We'll get a better idea at the SAGs next week.

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