The Wrestler (2008)

Dir. Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, etc.

If there is anyway you can see this without the hype, go see it. The hype took a little away from my enjoyment of the film. I would not have recommended this to Joel, but he saw it and kinda liked it I think. I wouldn’t really recommend this to Don or Jill. I know Grace likes Aronofsky, but I’d be surprised if she really liked this. Mitchell is going to see this no matter what, but I would warn him too. I think Marc might find this interesting, but it’s not something I can see him totally loving. Kevin, Chris and Penny would probably find interesting elements in this film, but again, I don’t foresee them loving this.

Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Rourke) is an aging professional wrestler. Because his body is breaking down, Randy attempts to mend a damaged relationship with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), at the same time reaching out to a lap-dancer, Cassidy (Tomei). The film has elements of a documentary, giving a behind the scenes look into the world of professional wrestling, particularly the perspective of those that are no longer in the spotlight. More of an independent drama than a Hollywood action film. This is the type of film that if you saw knowing next to nothing about it (including how great Rourke was in this), you’d tell a lot of people how great this was. It’s a good film, but the hype probably takes a little away from it. I also found it different from other Aronofsky films (Pi and The Fountain) that I’ve seen, which are more philosophical/metaphysical. Still, I liked this one the best, despite its bleakness (It’s a downer folks.)

One final warning. There is one particularly brutal scene. (It’s brutal enough that I think Grace and Mitchell should be warned.) I’m pretty jaded when it comes to gruesome scenes, but even I felt squeamish. I didn’t think I could take much more of those scenes; luckily, it was the only one.

The obvious comparison is Rocky. (In many ways, The Wrestler is a much better final installment of the Rocky series.) The characters and storyline are similar. Both Randy and Rocky are guys who really can’t make it anywhere else but in the rink, and both are striving for some dignity. They are also both drawn to women in a similar predicament, “losers” like themselves.

But where most of the Rocky offer hope and inspiration, I found The Wrestler very sad and bleak. Even the final shot of the film of the Ram, jumping off the top ropes delivering his signature move, ultimately sad rather than triumphant—for Randy is most likely plunging to his death, a death that he chooses given that his only meaning is found in pathetic world of aging wrestling, and the fans that come to these events.

The way Randy can’t make it in the normal world–being humiliated at work (in some charmingly acted scenes by Rourke); failing to reconcile with his estranged daughter; and unable to pursue a potential loving relationship–is pretty cliche, but they still are moderately effective, partly because I wanted them to work emotionally. On the other hand, I didn’t find the acting by Wood or Tomei sufficient to make the scenes fully convincing. Actually, the screenwriter and director bear equal responsibility. For one thing, what made Stephanie decide to breakdown and give Randy a second chance. More importantly, how does she get to the point where she lets him have an intimate conversation, where he confesses and breaks down? (The scene where they dance together is also not substantiated in any way.) Things happen way too fast for these developments to believable and the Wood does not show us through her acting how this happens in a credible way.

Similarly, I don’t think in the scenes between Randy and Cassidy don’t establish that there is something potentially really meaningful between them–certainly not enough to make her spontaneously quit her job and go looking for him. These dramatic moments, including her racing to stop him at his last fight, seemed hollow; the filmmakers hadn’t worked hard enough to establish the emotional truth of these scenes. (Still, I gotta give some credit to Tomei for doing those risque dance sequences–not just for her courage, but learning to dance that way.)

Despite these flaws, there are still some interesting things about the film. I liked the way Aronofsky used grainy film stock and shot right behind Rourke’s head, following him like a camera in a documentary. (The scene where the camera follows Rourke as he head out into the meat counter, mimicking his entrance into a ring, was particularly effective, if a bit obvious.)

The most interesting part of the film is the social critique (and it’s the main thing that bumped the film up to a 7 for me). specifically on the entertainment industry, broadly speaking (including sports and lap dancers) and our culture that is so obsessed with it. The professions of Randy and Cassidy are so dehumanizing that they lose their humanity, and their ability to function in the normal world. Aronofsky suggests that both of their “work” is a kind of sacrifice of flesh for the audience that pays to view them; a sacrifice that Aronofsky compares with Jesus’ punishment. The comparison may be pushing it, but it is interesting critique of our entertainment and society. To be appeased and satiated we require people to sacrifice their bodies for us. This is not a stretch when you think of professional sports like football, boxing and ultimate fighting. not to mention pornography and other related entertainment. The dehumanization of these “entertainers” is the price paid for us. In a way, Randy the Ram Robinson is a kind of Christ figure–but a tragic and pathetic one. He sacrifices himself for our entertainment, not for our salvation. This is what makes the film bleak and depressing.

The other good thing is Rourke’s performance (which I probably would have enjoyed a lot more if I didn’t go in with all the hype.) Like Stallone’s Rocky, Rourke’s Randy the Ram is charming and very likable. He’s just a good guy that you’re rooting for. He also was convincing as broken man (in more ways than one). While it’s good, it is not better than Heath Ledger’s, which ranks as one of the all-time great performances.

Addendum (1/27/2009)
I forgot to add one other thing. Something Tony said about Gran Torino hinting at the death of an older (white?) way. In a way The Wrestler has a similar feeling–although I might be reading too much into the film. I don’t think there is much in the film that can back that interpretation.

3 Responses to “The Wrestler (2008)”

  1. Mitchell

    I saw this Saturday morning. Good movie. Weird, I didn’t think of Rocky a single time while viewing it. I did think of Beyond the Mat, a fascinating documentary about professional wrestling that the writer (Robert D. Siegel) must have seen, because so much of what Randy the Ram goes through (including the estranged daughter) echoes the storylines of both Terry Funk and Jake the Snake. The Wikipedia article on Beyond the Mat says as much, ‘though the source is uncited.

    [spoilers follow]
    I agree with Reid. Rourke’s Randy the Ram is a charming fellow, and you can see why he’s a fan favorite as well as a popular guy. There are moments when Randy, working the deli counter in a supermarket, almost seems to embrace his new job and you see his charm, almost involuntarily, work its way through. I don’t think we need to see TOO much evidence of this charm in order for us to know that he would get along so well with Cassidy or that he would be able to get his daughter to loosen up. However, some of what Reid says is true: A lot of it is unconvincing, including the dancing scene. I can’t fault Tomei’s performance at all, except I just get this feeling that she’s too easy to cast in this role. I’m not sure what gives me this feeling; I just wish we’d seen someone else here.

    The movie is indeed a downer, especially one scene where a bunch of aging wrestlers are at a fan-fest, selling autographs, memorabilia, and photos. Super depressing.

    Overall a very good film, ‘though not as good as its hype. I give it a strong 7/10, meaning I actually agree with Reid on the quality of this movie!

  2. Reid

    I can’t fault Tomei’s performance at all, except I just get this feeling that she’s too easy to cast in this role. I’m not sure what gives me this feeling; I just wish we’d seen someone else here.

    I know what you mean. I felt like she’s been in this type of role too often–sort of like seeing Meg Ryan in a romantic-comedy or Jack Nicholson as a psycopathic villain–although I can’t think of any similar roles Tomei played. Having said that, I don’t know of another actor would have improved the film. I think the writing and perhaps the direction was the bigger problem with the character for me.

    I believe Tomei received a nomination for this role, and I think it was mainly because of those exotic dance scenes. I have mixed feelings about her–or other actors–receiving nominations because of doing something courageous on the screen, nevermind the overall quality of the performance or the character. I do give her credit for doing those scenes (and she did them well), but I don’t know if that alone warrants a nomination.

  3. pen

    I finally saw this movie. I thought it would make me cry and I hate to cry when I’m sick. I mean, I’m congested enough as it is. Anyway, this movie did not make me cry, although I really felt for the main character Ram.

    Amazingly, I have nothing to add to Reid’s review. I actually agree with everything he said. (Surprising, I know!) I felt Rourke’s performance was great. He was engaging and sincere and did not overplay the role. He shows subtlety and nuance. If he over-acted, the result would have been characature-like, but he deftly avoids that. I believed when he was trying to leave the wrestling world and make connections “outside.” I believed when he fell back into the very world that helped create the bad situation in the first place.

    Like Reid mentioned, the weaknesses were in the supporting characters. Their thought processes and motiviations were not as easy to follow. It is interesting that at one point in the movie, Pam (Tomei) tells Randy (Rourke) that he does not see her as she really is…a mother, someone with responsibilities. She accuses him of only seeing her as a stripper. It is the very thing he struggles with…does he want people to see him as “The Ram” (good guy wrestler and all the noteriety and trappings that go with it) or as “Randy” grocery worker, father and guy doing his best to get by? 7/10.

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