REVIEW: Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
When I first heard that Darren Aronofsky’s next film project after the largely ignored "The Fountain" was going to be centered around an aging professional wrestler working the modern day independent circuit, I was lukewarm to the idea. Past attempts to portray professional wrestling on the big screen have been…well, disastrous is a generous word to describe "efforts" such as "Ready to Rumble" starring David Arquette. The fact that the aforementioned film was what it was despite the involvement of a professional wrestling organization (the then Turner-owned WCW) speaks to the difficulty Hollywood has in showing anything resembling restraint or accuracy when dealing with professional wrestling. To say I was morbidly curious as to what the result would be when the director of "Pi" put a pair of tights on Mickey Rourke and filmed him in front of live "Ring of Honor" and "Combat Zone Wrestling" fans would be an understatement.
I’m happy to say that not only does Aronofsky effectively utilize the real-life tragedy that envelops the professional wrestling industry and its participants, but he does so in such a manner that it easily passes the point of being a good movie about wrestling and simply becomes a good character study on its own merits.
That’s not to say that the wrestling aspect ever takes a back seat. Most directors probably would be apt to make the wrestling industry a peripheral to the story of Randy "The Ram" Robinson, but Aronofsky is smart enough to know that the real story is the undying obsession that professional wrestlers have with the industry that ultimately ends up destroying their lives. One of the many reasons this film succeeds is its recognition that the nature of the industry is such that it cannot be separated from those that do it for a living, as it’s an integral part of who they are to their are. The film, then, serves as the first true and honest expose of professional wrestling: an examination of the fantasy world these large child-like men inhabit and their open acknowledgment that they’re hooked to it as an escape from reality that makes this film worth watching.
Oh, and there’s that performance from Mickey Rourke that everyone’s raving about. All talk of "comebacks" and "career resurrection" aside – he’s been working steadily for years and was the star of a movie you might’ve heard of called "Sin City" – Rourke deserves all the praise and adulation he’s received in recent months for his portrayal of the film’s protagonist. His character draws from various real-life tales of former stars who can’t let go of their glory days. But to spend time trying to determine which character traits and events are based on which real-life story would be moot. The sad truth is that the story of Randy the Ram is more or less the story of every professional wrestler. And yet Randy the Ram never becomes a caricature. Instead, through equal parts careful scripting and subtle nuances from Rourke, still maintains a unique charisma that draws the audience into the strange and depressing world The Ram inhabits.
In fairness, I need to note that I had trouble and continue to have trouble looking at the film from eyes that aren’t those of a former fan with an avid interest in the behind the scenes history of the professional wrestling industry, or as someone who still enthusiastically reads biographies of those for whom the industry’s pitfalls took a dangerous and sometimes fatal toll. For that reason alone I’m not sure how comfortable I would be in calling this film "great." I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film was made with fans (past and present) in mind as its target audience, particularly since I’ve heard and read comments from several people who never even watched the stuff to begin with – including critics – that have raved about the film. It’s just hard to have spent the better part of the past decade reading and at one point blogging about all the problems inherent with the lifestyle, then see a film that captures it so accurately and with such beauty, and then try to examine it from a completely objective standpoint.
So, in the interest of fairness, I’ll admit that you may not like Marisa Tomei in this film. She’s not as bad as so many film geeks like to say she is, but like so many other roles in recent years she doesn’t add much to anything other than the aesthetics of this film. But she’s also not bad, let alone distractingly bad as some would have you believe she is every time out.
Other than that, I can only say to those who aren’t and/or never were fans of professional wrestling: this is a good film, and you will enjoy it. It’s richly textured, beautifully shot, keeps a good beat and hits all the right notes. At the very least, you will come out of this film satisfied. And most likely impressed.