The Wrestler is Rocky for an age of diminished expectations, a heartfelt underdog story that hits you like an elbow smash in the ribs.
Mickey Rourke finds his career-defining role as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a has-been pro wrestler pushing his battered carcass through a few more bouts. Rourke, 56, abandoned acting in the early '90s to take up boxing, and now owns a face that looks like it kissed more than a few turnbuckles and a beefy body that moves like a walking collection of athletic injuries. Rourke has the physique to play the Ram, and also the soul.
Rourke's performance reminds you why he once was mentioned in the same breath with Brando. Before his wayward years, Rourke did bravura work in Diner, Barfly, Rumble Fish, and Angel Heart. Here he is after 15 years in the wilderness, aiming to turn his career around with a display of real showmanship. No wonder he identifies with Randy. His acting is deep, quiet and low-key, an unostentatious merging of performer and part.
Everything about Randy the Ram is crowd-pleasing make-believe, including his name: His birth certificate reads Robin Ramzinsky. Yet he's genuine where it counts. With bleached hair past his shoulder blades and an artificial tan that makes him look like a roast turkey, he's a cartoon image of virtue for the dwindling crowds at his matches. He's a "face," the wrestling game's term for the sportsmanlike hero of the match. He never hits his adversary with a folding chair unless provoked.
Randy flopped as a professional entertainer (he was a national name in the '80s and now works days at a supermarket deli counter) and as a family man (he hasn't seen his grown daughter in years). Still, he is an innocent. When the little boys in his trailer park coax him to come out and play, he roughhouses with them like a 9-year-old. In the ring he delivers his all, a sincere practitioner of a cheeseball art form. He's a steroid-bloated failure, but his heart is true.
His story is agreeably modest. The Ram wants to perform in a reunion match with his old nemesis The Ayatollah, a pleasant Californian who now owns used-car dealerships. He wants to go on a date with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper whose professional smile he mistakes for friendliness. And he wants to make amends with his grown-up little girl Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). On this simple scaffolding director Darren Aronofsky builds a remarkably touching and universal story. Almost every character gets a full measure of empathy. The sole exception, Randy's overbearing supermarket manager, is such a snappish, insufferable dork that he gets a pass as comic relief.
The Wrestler is strong, confident filmmaking. It shows you everything you need to know, and never whispers in your ear what you're supposed to feel about it. Consider Aronofsky's hands-off style in his handling of an encounter between the Ram and a female wrestling groupie. Their brief encounter threatens to sabotage Randy's reformation. You can view the episode as an uproarious lewd joke, or a misstep by an immature, lonely man, or both at once. Rourke's clumsy flirtations with Tomei and his reconciliation scene with Wood at a derelict oceanside amusement park are achingly poignant.
Aronofsky supports these moments with touches of subtle poetry. At the beach, Ronnie tells his adult daughter, "I'm an old, broken-down piece of meat and I deserve to be alone. Just don't hate me." It's a beautiful exchange all on its own. But there's another layer almost subliminally at work. While he pours out his regrets, the surf rhythmically marks their time together, waves flowing until they break on the beach just as life flows until death.
Aronofsky has made four feature films on diverse subjects, creating a new audiovisual language for each. In Pi, a story of mystery, mathematics, and mental breakdown, he transplanted us to a world of washed-out, binary black and white. He enployed circuit-frying, hallucinatory Technicolor for the addiction drama Requiem for a Dream. The gleaming finish of his science-fiction fable The Fountain was the best thing about that film, a silly splash of metaphysical hoo-ha that at least looked like a sensational fantasy.
In The Wrestler, he's created a showpiece of dirty-fingernails realism - Diane Arbus moments shot in grainy Kodak color. Maryse Alberti's camera hovers close to Rourke as he paces backstage at wrestling events or walks the back hallways of the supermarket, his energy penned in claustrophobic environments he can't wait to escape. You can almost smell the stale sweat in the locker rooms, the flat beer in the strip joint, the salt spray at the shore where Randy and his daughter have their moment of forgiveness and love.
Robert Siegel's script slices the ham thick, but there's an aura of sincerity about the story that redeems it. The final image - possibly the Ram's return to glory, maybe a devastating comedown - ends the film on a note of sublime balance. Simply put, it's a knockout.