Monday, February 2, 2009

The Wrestler

I just came from seeing The Wrestler. I certainly agree that it was a poignant movie but I have to wonder if I've become too jaded or if I've seen too many films.

The plot of The Wrestler is telegraphed from the outset. Mickey Rourke stars as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a huge wrestling star in the 1980's reduced to eking out a living by wrestling on a much smaller scale. As we first glimpse him, his dressing room appears to be a children's classroom. He subjects himself to such indignities as being victimized by a staple gun in the ring and having his boss at a grocery store make homophobic insults about his "profession."

Randy is down and out for a reason though. He skipped out on his daughter, injected copious amounts of steroids and its hinted during the 80's he lived like a movie star, partied like a rock star and f*cked a porn star. It must have been good to be The Ram in 1989. In 2009 however, he can't make the rent on his mobile home, he is estranged with his daughter and his most significant relationship is with an aging stripper.

It's pretty clear after 20 minutes what is going to happen. Randy is going to suffer a setback that requires him to come to terms with his life, his daughter and his stripper. The setback is a heart attack after a particularly violent and bloody match.

Told by his doctor that he can no longer wrestle, The Ram decides to get a legit job at the deli counter at his supermarket, seek forgiveness from his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and try for something more than a cash and carry relationship with the stripper (Marisa Tomei, who is fantastic in the role).

Of course, it can't be a straight road to redemption or else it would break every literary rule. You see, the toughest opponent The Ram ever faced was himself. Bored with his job (in a plastic hairguard) and missing the glory of wrestling (even if it is at an elementary school or VFW hall), Randy strays one night from the straight and narrow. He snorts a line of coke, bangs a twentysomething (or was she younger given the firefighter posters?) in the women's restroom of a bar and forgets about dinner with his daughter who has finally begun to forgive him.

When Randy tries to apologize, his daughter calls him a "fuck up" and tells him she never wants to see him again. He goes to the strip club to seek emotional comfort from Pam (stage name Cassidy) but she has her own issues and spurns him. That is the pivotal moment in the film. If Pam had reciprocated his affection at that moment, I think Randy could have found some form of salvation. Indeed, if Randy had approached her anywhere but the strip club, she may have been more amenable. Using SAT format analogies - Pam/Cassidy:Strip Club :: Randy/Ram:Wrestling Ring. More on that later.

Spurned by the two women he loves, The Ram decides to ignore doctor's orders and climb back into the squared circle. You can see where this is going to end. If it is a happy ending or American ending, Randy gets the girl, his daughter's love, a new lease on life and quite possibly wins the wrestling match. If it is a European ending, Randy doesn't get anything, probably dies and at best gets a Pyrrhic victory.

I will say this about Darren Aronofsky; he leaves the ending vague enough (although clearly European) to not quite know what happens although it's really not important because The Ram gave up on life so it doesn't matter if he lives or dies.

For me, sensing where the plot was going, it was up to the performances of the actors to entertain me. I will heartily agree with any award nominations Rourke and Tomei receive. They both deliver powerful performances as damaged people looking to make transitions from their pasts. Tomei really delivers an understated poignancy to her character; at least as understated as a topless stripper can get. Tomei conveys a sense of pain just beneath the surface. She calmly handles the direct verbal insults of men young enough to be her children and the more polite refusals of men who no longer find her attractive. Certainly for a woman that makes her living selling her sexuality, it must be devasting to realize that her sex appeal is drying up. It must be just as difficult as a man wrestling (pun intended) with his aging body and long vanished glory days. So there you have it - two aging stars trying to find what's next for them.

As if often the case, the woman is the stronger one. Tomei has an exit plan and it doesn't include a man because she has hardened her heart. However, as she sees her son playing with a Randy The Ram action figure and her customers' lack of interest, she reaches for the brass ring. She gives Randy his last chance which he declines but you get the sense that Pam will eventually be ok with Randy and Cassidy out her life.

For the record, I found Marisa Tomei to be quite appealing even though she is four years older than me. The tattoos were a little off putting although Aronofsky nicely inserted that non-verbal clue as to her hard living past.

A few other tidbits I noticed.

Randy The Ram Robinson is so self-conflicted that he can't stand to be called by his given first name - Robin. Did I hear correctly that his real surname was Aronofsky?

Not quite sure about the plot implications but it was a little odd to have Evan Rachel Wood's character be a lesbian involved in biracial relationship.

My father, who is a wrestling fan, recognized several of the wrestlers in the movie.

There is something very homoerotic about muscular, sweaty men wrestling half-naked so when the supermarket mananger makes disparaging comments, it was doubly effective.

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