DODGE RAM: Aging fighter Randy 'The Ram' Robinson (Mickey Rourke) can still floor them in The Wrestler.
There are some movie debuts that stay with you permanently. Barry Levinson's 1982 Diner actually marked Mickey Rourke's fifth screen appearance -- amidst throwaway bits, he had previously been memorable in a small role in 1981's Body Heat -- but I will never forget the flush of excitement I felt as this intriguing new presence sauntered onto the screen. Speaking in raspy whispers, squinting with eyes that never seemed to miss anything going on, Rourke proved to be an instantly captivating presence, and Brando comparisons honestly didn't seem out of line. But after a brief reign of glory in the early to mid-1980s, Rourke's career went up in flames, thanks to personal problems as well as a tendency to pick dreadful material (Wild Orchid, Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, etc.). A comeback via 2005's Sin City failed to take root, but no matter: Rourke now has the role of a lifetime -- and the critical acclaim to support it -- in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler (**** out of four), a tremendous character study from the director of The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream (which topped my 10 Best list for 2000).
On paper, The Wrestler sounds like nothing more than yet another inspirational sports saga -- a Rocky reconfigured for the wrestling rather than boxing arena. But Robert Siegel's screenplay fleshes out the basic story lines in unique ways, and Aronofsky and Rourke add a rich palette to the proceedings, resulting in a movie that's frequently as colorful as it is meaningful. For despite the constant hype about Rourke's tremendous performance, it would be wrong to think that this is simply a one-man show at the center of sturdy yet unremarkable material. On the contrary, The Wrestler examines not just one individual's life but also the presence of the sort of hazy nostalgia that keeps our celebrities propped up long after their achievements have given out from under them. Beyond that, it also lines up nicely with my only other four-star pictures of 2008, collectively presenting a portrait of the uncertain, often unhappy America in which we presently reside. If Milk touches on America's prejudices and The Dark Knight examines America's fears, then The Wrestler explores America's regrets. It's a rueful examination of society on the fringe, a meat-and-taters zone so far removed from the international -- even national -- scene that the occupants might as well be living on another planet. Instead, they're living in New Jersey, barely eking out an existence while thinking about what shoulda, coulda, woulda.
Rourke stars as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, who was quite the big deal in the wrestling world back in the 1980s. Twenty years forward, however, and Randy is now long past his glory days. Looking more like a sack of potatoes than a human being, he still manages to secure a bout now and then, but things are so tight that he has to work a second job at the local supermarket, where he far prefers lugging warehouse crates in silence than working the deli counter with all those customers breathing down on him. It's not that Randy dislikes people -- indeed, he's a delight with the shoppers, cracking jokes and flattering the ladies -- it's just that he's generally unsure of himself outside the ring. Two decades of hard partying have wiped him out, and if he has any emotional reservoirs to tap, he wants to make sure to save them for the two women in his life. The first is Cassidy (an excellent Marisa Tomei), a stripper at the club he frequents. Cassidy is always there to lend Randy a sympathetic ear (usually in the middle of a lap dance), but while she obviously cares for him, she insists that they keep their distance outside the club, as she'll lose her job if she's caught fraternizing with one of the customers. The other female on Randy's mind is his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood); because he was never there for her while she was growing up, she understandably hates him now. Randy doesn't blame her, but that's not going to stop him from trying to make a connection.
The personal drama is potent stuff, although there's always room for a humorous or tender moment. Yet much of the best material revolves around Randy's career as a wrestler. I've detested this faux-sport since Day One, but Aronofsky and Siegel do a remarkable job of treating its practitioners with respect, so much so that it's softened my stance toward these athletes (dare we call them artists?) who give so much of themselves for the entertainment of others. There are a couple of absorbing sequences in which the wrestlers -- all friends, incidentally -- discuss the evening's routines, laying out strategies and choreographing moves. They may as well be ballet dancers contemplating pirouettes -- at least until they enter the ring, whereupon they might find themselves rolling around in barbed wire and using staple guns on each other's heads (a sequence that's at once funny, frightening and fascinating).
Aronofsky and the film's music department deserve a special mention for the song selection, which proves to be integral to the action. Except for the original end-credits song (Bruce Springsteen's exquisite title tune), the music is comprised of '80s hard-rock hits that also serve as the soundtrack to Randy's life (Quiet Riot's "(Bang Your Head) Metal Health," Ratt's "Round and Round," Cinderella's "Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone," etc.). Also worthy of praise is cinematographer Maryse Alberti, whose camera instinctively knows when to get inside Randy's head (or as close to it as possible) and when to remain at a respectable distance. Alberti is also responsible for the movie year's best closing shot, a mythic view of The Ram tumbling into oblivion ... or maybe fumbling toward ecstasy?