Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fighting Back

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2009)

I completely agree with the praise for Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler. I can’t remember a film that so consistently and fully conveyed an actor’s heavy, weary topography; by its end you start to ache and shiver in sympathy. He plays Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a professional wrestler some twenty years past his best days, but still grinding, in sparsely attended makeshift arenas and promotional events, supplementing his income at a local grocery store. With his marriage long evaporated and virtually estranged from his daughter, his only vaguely meaningful relationship is with a stripper (Marisa Tomei), herself still going long after it made sense (if it ever did), but she strains to see him as much more than a customer.

Mickey Rourke

Rourke, of course, brings to this a back story easily capable of being seen as paralleling the character’s (whether or not it really does is another matter – down-and-out in Hollwood terms is only relative penury after all). He was one of the 80’s hottest actors, if not in box office terms, at least in his ability to capture the imagination of the more provocative directors. He worked for Coppola, Nicolas Roeg, Michael Cimino, Barbet Schroeder. This petered out in the early 90’s (Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man seems to have been the main point of no return), and Rourke’s visibility became increasingly confined to tabloid reports of brawls and failed relationships and eccentric attachments to ugly little dogs. In recent years he’s had a few decent supporting parts (Domino, Sin City) and now finally found a director (Darren Aronofsky) willing to roll the dice big on him, although reportedly for little or no salary.

It’s only in its scale, perhaps, that Rourke’s narrative of feast and famine differs from hundreds of thousands of lives lived. It’s impossible to visit a small town without unearthing at least one whatever-happened-to narrative of the high school sports star and stud who never got much going after that. The financial bust may throw countless others into this narrative – fat times evaporating, never to be quite reclaimed in the same way. Aronofsky generally manages to evoke this universality while avoiding overt symbolism. One exception, contrasting Rourke’s humiliated but stoic walk to his new deli counter job with the past glories of his entrance into the ring, is witty enough to pass muster.

In scenes like this Rourke shows off a surprising nimbleness (even in his heyday, his dominant mode was dour/belligerent, with a hint of wounded). But his primary lot here is to suffer. Aronofsky stages several wrestling matches, and if that’s not Rourke himself being pounded and smacked and jumped on and torn open and pierced with a staple gun, then it’s real hard to tell. The authenticity of his suffering is really the film’s biggest single idea, and it makes sense when Tomei’s character mentions The Passion Of The Christ, another drama that beat up its protagonist for the best part of two hours. I was not a fan of Mel Gibson’s horrid film, seeing it mainly as a neurotic expression of its creator’s self-loathing. No such thoughts occur in The Wrestler, which somehow manages to map virtually every inch of Rourke’s flesh without seeming homoerotic or gloating.

Darren Aronofsky

That’s partly, again, because it’s all so plainly just a job. The film contributes some honorable anthropological insight in matter-of-factly showing the wrestlers’ pre-match negotiations on who’s going to do what to whom (thoughts arise that it could only possibly be a job for someone with a definite masochistic streak, but the film doesn’t go there). Aronofsky moves breezily through this – the film might not sound overtly commercial, but its pacing and packaging certainly owe more to a mainstream sensibility than to, say, self-defined cultural examinations such as The Secret Of The Grain. It’s still a canny move for the young filmmaker. He came to prominence with the super-smart low-budget Pi, and then made the traumatic Requiem For A Dream and the muddled, mostly derided The Fountain. He’s been mentioned, as most young directors are now, as a candidate to direct a superhero movie, maybe Robocop. Taken on its own terms, it’s a career many would kill for, but still, not very substantial in the overall cinematic scheme of things, and certainly not suggesting much artistic progression. The Wrestler is the kind of house extension that returns 100% on the investment.

Some of its elements are conventional, such as the overall relationship with Tomei and that with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), but not off-puttingly so. Tomei’s character, as I mentioned, is a parallel example of competing with the youngsters. The film has several scenes of her nightly humiliation, sometimes openly derided as an old woman, at others just rejected. Tomei has undergone her own travails, her Oscar for My Cousin Vinny often held up as one of the all-time silliest outcomes. But she plugged away and got a second nomination for In The Bedroom; after Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, she may now be cornering the market on middle-aged nudity. She’s great in the role, but Aronofsky doesn’t seem much interested in the character beyond the comparison with, and what she represents for, Randy. Wood’s character has even less independent life, beyond a mild suggestion that she may be a lesbian.

Ongoing Possibilities

The bull-headedly fatalistic ending shares something with Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino - in each, an old man embraces a point of no return. Gran Torino is more cartoonish in some ways, and certainly more conventional in its use of an established star image, but ultimately more audacious I think. One wishes The Wrestler resonated a little more, that it was about more than the man himself. The downside of Aronofsky’s respect for Rourke is that he almost squeezes all the fun out of the exercise (which, again, is why it’s so delightful when the actor gets to loosen up in that deli sequence). Quentin Tarantino’s revival of overlooked icons has been hit and miss (Travolta and to a lesser degree Robert Forster owe him a ton, but he couldn’t do much for David Carradine) and you wonder whether The Wrestler will really suggest to other filmmakers the ongoing possibilities in Rourke, more than it confirms the squandering of the old ones.

You can perhaps tell that my enthusiasm for the film, although genuine, is a little more respectful than I’d like; I don’t think it’s the kind of work that gets reactions tumbling out of you. But maybe this too is appropriate: if we reacted more robustly to Randy’s story, maybe that could only be at the cost of betraying his story’s very narrow, if unusually gaudy, parameters.

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