January 29, 2009

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The Wrestler (R)
Mickey Rourke gives us the portrait of a screw-up as a broken-down older-middle-aged man in The Wrestler.

Yes, in your office pool for Oscar nominees, you probably should pick Rourke for The Wrestler to win. I’m a big fan of at least two of the other four nominated performances, but Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is too good for voters to pass up.

Randy peaked as a professional wrestler in the late 1980s but he’s still in the ring — fighting it out against Tommy Rotten when we first see him. He’s a likeable crowd-pleaser, so he “wins” these rather carefully thought-out performances (the scenes where the wrestlers talk amongst themselves about who’s going to throw whom into the ropes and then follow up with which kind of body slams are alone worth the price of a movie ticket). But these victories are no more kind to his body, which looks all beat to hell — his face is craggy and pitted, his massive chest is out of proportion with rather svelte legs, his blond hair and his orange tan look unnerving on his unhealthy skin. Even before Randy blacks out after one of the fights, we can tell this life is doing him no favors. We can also tell that he’ll do anything not to lose his ability to go in the ring.

Wrestling doesn’t make him near enough money so he works a job in the warehouse of a local grocery store (where the manager mocks him for his weekend pastime). Even that disheartening job doesn’t make ends meet; in the beginning of the movie, he comes home to his trailer to find it padlocked by the landlord because he’s behind on his rent. When these miseries get to be too much, Randy turns to Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper whose real name is Pam. Though theirs is a relationship built on Pam’s pity for Randy and maybe their mutual humiliation by life, it is the most real and tender thing Randy has. His daughter, the angry young Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), is barely on speaking terms with him.

Bruce Springsteen won the Golden Globe for the song he wrote for this movie, which is no surprise. This movie is a Bruce Springsteen song — part “Glory Days,” part “My Home Town,” part “Lonesome Day.” Rourke perfectly steps into the broken-down life, all hopeful sadness and heartbreaking resignation. He fills out Randy’s skin in a masterful way — or maybe in a way that comes of an all-too-good understanding of the sort of “no turning back from your mistakes, just gotta live with them” place that Randy is in. Whichever — Rourke does an undeniably good job and the rest of the movie is really just atmospherics for him.

I suppose Tomei would be the one exception. Perhaps this is the result of hearing too much hype about a movie before seeing it but I didn’t think her performance was exactly earth-shattering. (Though, she is probably in about the middle of the pack of the five actresses nominated for the Oscar for best supporting actress this year. She’s better than Amy Adams, not as good as Viola Davis.) Like Randy, Cassidy/Pam is also broken, but in a different way. She has a different life — not as hopeless but not as glory-hungry — from Randy. It is interesting to watch how she can be both stunning and physically rather worn out herself.

The Wrestler feels like a really great short story, with plenty of stuff going on to let it stand up to a second read. A-

Rated R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language, some drug use. Directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Robert D. Siegel, The Wrestler is an hour and 45 minutes long and distributed by Fox Searchlight.