I attended the closing gala to the New York Film Festival, where they screened The Wrestler, directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood. Also notable & surprising in the cast are Todd Barry (as Rourke’s boss at the deli) and Jonah Friedlander (as a fellow wrestler).
This film is sort of being hailed as Rourke’s comeback. I dunno if this film will push him further into public consciousness than Sin City already had done a few years back, but there’s no denying that he was definitely the best thing about this movie. I’ve always found Rourke, the actor, to be highly unlikable and unpleasant to watch or hear about. This was the first time I have ever had any sympathy or compassion for a character he has played. I was impressed that Rourke could make himself this genuinely vulnerable, though I’m not sure if this was simply a great part for him, or if he has matured as a person and as an actor. IMDB informs me that Nicholas Cage was originally slated for this role. All I can say is there is no way it would’ve won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film festival had that actually panned out.
Though it may seem like a similar story arch to films like Raging Bull (one of my favorite movies of all time EVER), in that a former champion of some sport confronts the fact that he is a has-been & therefore, confronts his own mortality. But, unlike Jake De La Motta of Raging Bull, professional wrestlers aren’t exactly widely respected by mainstream society, for the most part, nor do they have the same sort of dignity, despite the comparable levels and types of violence, toughness, and models of masculinity. I guess in Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s (Rourke’s character) white lower-middle class world wrestlers are respected, but even so, many people still think wresting is “fake,” and let’s face it, it just does not have the same cache or respect as being a professional boxer. And the two sports are very, very different, especially in that professional wrestling, although very violent and dangerous, is essentially all about entertainment and showy-ness. In an interview, Rourke, a former professional boxer, spoke about how he essentially had to unlearn all he knew about boxing in order to play the wresting parts that this film demanded. In boxing, he said it’s all about hiding your punches & your next move, but that in wresting, it’s entirely the opposite-all exaggerated and choreographed movements. In the movie, you even get to witness the collaborative nature of wrestling, in that the wrestlers discuss and sort of script their “fights” beforehand to ensure a good show. This might be a stretch, but in this way, it kind of almost reminds me of performance art-just in the sense that it’s a planned spectacle that can kind of be unpredictable. Aronofsky does a great job of making the audience feel each and every blow, cut, bodyslam, etc.-the overall incredible amounts of pain these men must endure in the wresting ring.
Anyway, I think it’s pretty difficult to take on such a character and convey some dignity, making the audience really sympathize, rather than simply pity. It probably could’ve easily been a TV movie had Rourke not added such rich depth and nuance to this character. My only real complaints are that unfortunately, Randy’s stripper friend (friend with benefits sometimes?) played by Tomei, and his estranged daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, weren’t as well developed as characters. So, this left them with very little to do, though Tomei, as always, made the best of her role, even though I found her a little too attractive to play an “over-the-hill” stripper. Though, perhaps a little more backstory would’ve made it work better. Wood’s role could’ve been literally played by any actress in her late teens/early 20s, really. Her presence was pretty “meh,” and a bit “movie-of the week.”
Overall, despite the tendency sometimes towards cliché and unremarkable camera work, I did find this film worthwhile, if nothing else because I gained a new respect for professional wrestling and Rourke as an actor.