Monday, February 9, 2009

Watching The Wrestler: or How I Learned to Stop Cringing and Love Mickey Rourke

More uplift. In this case, it’s not the story of Randy Ramzinski, the aging wrestler in Darren Aronofsky’s eponymous movie, but the story of Mickey Rourke. Here is a man whose promising career descended so low that he shared a category with Jerry Lewis (American Performers Most Loved By The French), and now he has won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA and may go on to win more.

Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, but I had the impression that The Wrestler was a superb movie with a story that somehow told you everything would be all right. I was only half-correct. The Wrestler is indeed a superb movie, but it makes you want to watch hours of Winnie-the-Pooh afterwards to cancel out its bleakness.

What’s bleak can be itemized quickly enough: the trailer home with the power cut off; the beaten-up body; the dingy strip club that passes for community; the tiny audiences; the autograph-signings that look like bingo at the nursing home. What’s superb requires a longer list. Aronofsky’s movie does everything right—from the script, to the un-annoying hand-held camera, to the portrayal of its two main characters, Randy the Ram whose real name is Robin, and Marisa Tomei’s Cassidy whose real name is Pam.

The similarity of their names is no accident. These two are through-the-looking-glass versions of each other, and each is a distorted mirror-image of him or her self. Both of them are performers, selling their bodies for a simulacrum of attraction and acceptance, and, in the case of Randy, confusing the simulacrum with the real. Pam understands all this, muttering her real name as she leaves the club for good, as if it were the password to a new life. But for Robin Ramzinski, the persona of the Ram is a trap he does not want to get out of—or considers himself undeserving to escape.

Perhaps the saddest scene in this very sad film takes place in neither of the two main spheres of its story (club and ring), but in a bar near the second-hand store where Randy meets Pam to buy a gift for his daughter. (Even here, there’s the hint of self-delusion: Pam’s “vintage” store is another person’s thrift shop.) When old-fashioned rock and roll comes on the bar’s speakers, both characters glory in the music, and Randy dances for Pam in a neat reversal of their usual roles. But their usual roles make Pam and Randy utterly out of place in the daytime bar. After they kiss, Pam hurries to get out of there—and we should thank Aronofsky for that. In one of the movie’s saddest scenes, he gives us the first sign that at least Pam gets it: you can’t live the role in the real world. Get out or die trying.

No spoilers here, so I leave it at that. Except to say that the people making Benjamin Button need have looked no further than The Wrestler if they wanted to talk about bodies that defy old age. Rourke is in surprising shape and Tomei looks like a twenty-five-year old, except for her realistically and beautifully expressive face.

As for Rourke? I cringed twice during The Wrestler (not counting the horribly violent wrestling scenes and the bloodletting Mel Gibson would be proud of). Once during a close-up shot of Rourke’s butt, and once during the heartbreaking scene in the bar. The rest of the time, I was marveling at Rourke’s creation of such a vivid, sad, and moving character.


  1. I LOVED The Wrestler. Absolutely loved it. Great review!

    -Becky T.

  2. I was a big Mickey Rourke fan back in the day (not always the coolest thing to admit). Barfly's got to be a high point for him. So I'm interested to see him in this comeback.