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The Final Countdown:
Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Fox Searchlight)


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
(Fox Searchlight)

Reviewed by Mark Asch

The Wrestler is Randy Robinson, still clinging to his identity as “the Ram” (and concomitant golden-fleece bleach job) in Saturday night fights and pay-for-Polaroid sessions at high school gyms and VFW halls throughout the mid-Atlantic states. But he’s almost less a character than he is a compendium of what we’ve known about Mickey Rourke during this decade’s weary climb back from punchline status: a dead-sexy 80s star turned washout, a serial chance-squanderer and primping, macho masochist who took a few too many blows to the head and then turned inward to nurse his bruises. The Wrestler’s very much first-time dramatic script by Robert D. Siegel — and direction by the newly vulnerable Darren Aronofsky — is tailored so gently to Rourke’s bloated abdominals and lifted face that the punch-drunk pussyhound redeems even a climactic allegory positing him as both George W. Bush and Jesus H. Christ. A quarter-century (and, one senses, a lot longer in Rourke Years) since he pulled the popcorn-bag trick on Carol Heathrow and then talked his way back into her good graces, we’ll still forgive Mickey Rourke anything.

There’s something prodigal about this can’t-stay-mad-at-you attitude, and indeed in intervening years of motorcycle daydreaming and iron pumping, this voracious id has seemed ever more arrested, his appetites increasing manchildish. Here, he’s mumbling to himself, needily making attention-getting games out of his day job at the deli counter and calling a neighborhood kid over for a heated round of Nintendo. (In a vintage wrestling game, he plays himself, natch.) He’s the chastened one in his interactions with his brittly self-sufficient estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) — most notably in his Oscar-clip close-up, his genuinely self-abasing voice now gravelly-worn instead of lean-in-a-bit soft, but with a little bit of Diner’s I-knew-this-would-work-before-you-did twinkle still intact. And like a kid — or a hardcore wrestling fan — he’s uncertain where fantasy ends and reality begins, eagerly reading signals into his friendship with stripper “Cassidy” (Marisa Tomei).

Between this and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, one is almost moved to start a clothing drive to benefit Tomei (and, for that matter, a campaign to have her recognized as one of the finest comediennes now working), but there is at least a theoretical justification. Both Cassidy and the just-as-frequently topless Ram make a living off of their bodies, and both bodies are as past-prime as the hair metal he uses as his entrance music and she uses for her pole routines (“the Nineties fuckin’ sucked” they agree while jamming to Ratt).

An over-the-hill icon, complete with glasses and hearing aid, in a bruising athletic spectacle — and played by an off-screen Macho Man — the Ram’s closest cinematic cousin is probably Steve McQueen’s Junior Bonner, of Sam Peckinpah’s neglected masterpiece. A mid-movie bout is edited in the style of Bonner’s opening credits, cutting back and forth between the roar of the crowd and the toll on the body, between locker-room treatment of wounds and the moment of their acquisition. As has been the case with recent revisionist Westerns, Peckinpah’s heirs outdo Bloody Sam for sheer gore if not impact, as Aronofsky conjures unpleasant memories of Requiem for a Dream with extreme close-ups of staplegun stigmata.

Staples, nails — the Ram has a Jesus tattoo on his back; Cassidy recommends he see The Passion of the Christ. His signature move, the Ram Jam, involves leaping onto the mat from the pylon; it is perhaps preordained that Aronofsky’s camera should catch him, at one such moment, with both arms outstretched. Or perhaps he’s merely, as his daughter suggests, “a glutton for punishment” — we do see him stash a sliver of razor, then cut his forehead in the ring, to let the crowd see a little red.

That there’s more than a little vanity in the Ram’s glory is perhaps how he, like Nixon-era suburban cowboy Junior Bonner, is meant to stand for an American identity crisis. Siegel’s screenplay builds towards a 20th-anniversary restaging of the Ram’s finest hour, a 1989 showdown with an Iron Sheik-like heel called “The Ayatollah.” Physically weakened and psychologically blinkered, the Ram seeks redemption not by reconnecting with his daughter or bonding with Cassidy, but instead by dyeing his hair, shaving his armpits and chasing a public, vindicating sequel to an H.W. Bush-era triumph over a Middle Eastern strongman. (A promoter’s tagline — “two words: ‘Re.’ ‘Match.’” — is about as typical of the film’s sense of humor as the “U-S-A!” chants of the crowd and the sight of a flag-wrapped Ram are of its sense of subtlety.)

Flash-forward, during The Wrestler’s climax, to the image of Rourke accepting an Oscar — abashed but basking, a Chihuahua under each arm — and all this becomes goofily endearing. Some credit is due to Aronofsky, who in addition to Peckinpah seems to be channeling the Dardenne brothers in his skuzzy, stagflated New Jersey settings, black-market dealings (the steroids that prop up the Ram’s physique while hastening his decline) and handheld follow-cam — a recurring shot is of the Ram’s stringy locks and hulky shoulders, sometimes as he’s heading through the tunnel to the ring and sometimes just walking along. The Dardennes’ cinema is one of attention and compassion; that a director as frequently self-aggrandizing as Aronofsky falls into biting their moves is tribute to the gut appeal of American cinema’s foremost Lost Boy.


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