February 19, 2009

The Wrestler (2008)

[UPDATED 2/24: See end of review.]

THOUGH I HAVEN’T thought about him for years,
I would say that I am a fan of Mickey Rourke; his work in ‘80s films Year of the Dragon and Angel Heart immediately come to mind. He was a charismatic actor and a force on the screen – until bad behavior, burned bridges, and a bizarre switch to boxing derailed his career.

Which makes Rourke’s turn in The Wrestler that much more heartbreaking to watch. It’s hard enough to witness what his character goes through, but it’s just as heartbreaking to see what we missed without his presence as a leading man over the last 15 years. (Recommend reading when you’re done here: “Mickey Roars” by Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty.)

• Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) was a top professional wrestler in the 1980s, ending the decade with a classic match at Madison Square Garden against his evil nemesis, The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller).
• 20 years later, Randy’s gone from selling out the Garden to wrestling in bingo halls and school gyms. He lives in a trailer park. He drives a van with his own action figure on the dashboard. He still uses ‘80s metal songs for his entrance music. He attends pathetic “fanfests” at local VFWs (with even more pathetic turnouts). He’s broke, but he still spends a thousand dollars a pop on performance-enhancing drugs and tanning booths. And when he’s not wrestling, he’s working at the loading dock of the local Acme.
• For companionship – something he will probably never get from his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) – Randy turns to lap dances at the local strip club from Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who, in stripper years, is a bit past her prime as well.
• After suffering a heart attack following a brutal “weapons match,” he’s told that he can’t wrestle anymore or it will kill him. But an enticing offer is dangled in front of him by a local promoter: a 20th-anniversary rematch with The Ayatollah.

Heartwrenching. Grueling. Depressing. Just a few of the words that come to mind when watching The Wrestler, especially Rourke’s performance. It’s already been said by dozens of reviews and bloggers, and it’s true: Rourke is phenomenal. It’s a milestone in character study, with Rourke showing us who Randy is through minimal dialogue and an emphasis on emotions and reactionary acting – reactions to the situations he’s placed in, and those he puts himself in.
Rourke and Tomei’s on-screen chemistry is palpable. The parallels between Randy and Cassidy are a large part of what draws them together: They’re both past their prime for what they do, which is put on a show that is different from who they are in real life. And in that real life, their relationship skills – often put on hold to please their customers – consist of awkward yet endearing fits and starts that have you hoping they’ll make it work.
• As a former follower of pro wrestling, I can say that The Wrestler accurately captures the essence of the “indie” wrestling leagues: the small, nondescript gyms and banquet halls, the former headliners crossing paths with promising up-and-comers, the reactions and sometimes profane chants of the crowd…it’s all presented here in true-to-life form.
The Wrestler owes a lot to its haunting musical score by Clint Mansell (featuring Slash) that makes the film even heavier to absorb. In addition, the soundtrack features many ‘80s metal tunes to play into Randy’s time-capsule persona, with songs by Guns ‘n Roses, Ratt, Quiet Riot, Accept, Cinderella, Firehouse, Slaughter, and Scorpions.
• Director Darren Aronofsky and cinematographer Maryse Alberti shoot The Wrestler with a documentary-like feel, creating an over-the-shoulder experience for the viewer. At times it’s almost like you could reach out and touch Randy – and in some scenes, you’ll want to pull him back and save him from himself.
• The filmmakers do a good job of accurately depicting life in blue-collar New Jersey (having lived there, I would know), with mentions of neighboring locations like Allentown, PA and Randy’s possible big match with The Ayatollah in Wilmington, Delaware.

Wrestling trivia:
• All the independent wrestling leagues you see in the movie (WXW, CZW, ROH) are real leagues that do business in the NJ/PA/DE area. In fact, it was WXW owner Afa (of the ’70s tag team The Wild Samoans) who trained Rourke for The Wrestler.
Don’t know wrestling lingo? Angle, hard way, blading, face, heel, spots…if these terms sound Greek to you, click here for a crash course in wrestling-speak.

At the time of this review, the Oscars are three days away. The race for Best Actor is basically between Rourke for The Wrestler and Sean Penn for Milk. Here are the pros and cons for each man, as I see it:

Pros for Penn: Penn disappeared behind his role and became Harvey Milk. An amazing portrayal of the gay rights activist, which comes following the recent furor by gay advocates surrounding California’s passing of Proposition 8, which eliminated same-sex couples' right to marry in the state.
Con for Penn: He won this award for his work in 2003’s Mystic River. Will the Academy feel it’s too soon to reward him again?

Pros for Rourke: Who doesn’t love a comeback? Rourke brought much of his real-life hardships and career struggles to the role of Randy. And there are many who still value his contributions to film before the ‘90s began.
Con for Rourke: He may have made too many enemies in Hollywood (and amongst Academy members) to earn their vote with just one film.

Me? Both men deserve to win, though I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to see a Mickey Rourke acceptance speech.

[UPDATE: Well, Sean Penn won the Oscar...which robbed us of a Mickey Rourke acceptance speech that night. However, he did give an acceptance speech the night before, winning for Best Male Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards -- a speech that is profane, hilarious, heartfelt, and worth showing here (NSFW).]

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
If they think it’s all about pro wrestling, they might. However, a) there are only about five scenes of in-ring action; and b) The Wrestler is in no way suitable for children:
• A bloody weapons match includes the breaking of tables, smashing of glass panes, and the use of barbed wire and a staple gun.
• During one match, Randy cuts himself on his forehead with a razor blade for added dramatic effect.
• There is a lot of adult language, drug use, and drug-related language.
• Tomei is nude for a large amount of her screen time, and Randy gets explicitly randy with a girl in a nightclub bathroom.

Will your FilmMother like it?
She may not like it – in fact, she may find it hard to watch for its heartbreaking content – but she’d find it hard to deny that The Wrestler is a powerful film, and one that will stick with both of you for days to come.

The Wrestler
* Director: Darren Aronofsky
* Screenwriter: Robert Siegel
* Stars: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
* MPAA Rating: R

Buy this movie for less at Half.com >>


Kristin said...

Are you kidding?!? Wilmington, DE? That's too funny.

I loved your comparisons for the Oscar since you just saw both films and liked them both. Now you made me want to see this (as long as I am allowed to close my eyes for the gory parts).

Keith said...

What a great review. I've really been wanting to see this movie. I've heard so many good things about it. I don't watch pro wrestling like I once did, but I did think it was cool that they made a movie about a washed up wrestler. It's fantastic to see Mickey back. I always liked him. He has such screen presence. I really hope he wins the Oscar for this. He deserves it.

Gemma said...

A fabulous review. I especially enjoyed all the links, which I faithfully checked out. I guess the question is.... who IS Mickey Rourke? Certainly all his plastic surgery has fueled that question. I CANNOT wait to see this movie. Thanx!

Anonymous said...

This movie made me cry...twice.

peggy said...

Loved the review. I have seen a lot of trailers on this and heard wonderful things about Mickey Rourke. This really puts it in perspective!

Kathy B. said...

Great review - I'm sure to see this one.....
I have been saddened by seeing Mickey on TV ~ and he just seems so sad.
He was one of my favorites back in the day.

John Wildermuth said...

Great review and I love your site! Just came over from Dad-Blogs. "The Wrestler" was my favorite movie of '08. I love gritty independent films and was bummed that Mickey didn't win the Oscar. I love Sean Penn and director Gus Van Sant, but thought "Milk" was boring and his character didn't have much of an arc in the story. You were right on the money with why you thought Sean would win and like you said, Mickey needs another great role and he'll stand a better chance.

I work in film production and have done 3 films with Mickey and 1 with Sean and they are 2 of my favorite actors. As a matter of fact, the first movie I worked on was..."Year of the Dragon".

I look forward to reading more reviews!

DAMIN said...

This is one of the greatest American films made in recent years. The movie might come across as only enjoyed by a niche audience, but the movie is so much more than that.

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