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The Wrestler


Movie review by Greg Carlson

A beneath-the-underdog story that would be right at home as a produced-for-cable movie of the week, “The Wrestler” transcends its familiar structure by way of the title performance of previously washed up star Mickey Rourke, whose unsavory antics and questionable plastic surgery torpedoed his once healthy career.  The fourth feature from Darren Aronofsky, “The Wrestler” is easily the director’s most conventional movie to date.  Written by Robert D. Siegel, the film never strays from the formulaic hallmarks of weepy melodrama, but Rourke manages to apply his old charm where it is needed most, and the result will satiate moviegoers who might otherwise find the whole thing more than a little reheated.

Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson (birth certificate: Robin Ramzinski), a once famous professional wrestler whose long ago successes have been replaced by part time work at a grocery store and weekend bouts for small cash payouts that don’t quite cover the rent on the Ram’s dingy trailer.  Many will not care why the script fails to account for Robinson’s epic fall from the tower of fortune, but the filmmakers clearly have no intention of exploring that aspect of the character’s biography.  Instead, we take the guy at face value: he’s a seemingly decent, working stiff who roughhouses with the neighborhood kids in the daylight and frequents a strip club at night.

One of the screenplay’s many contrivances is the tenuous relationship that develops between Randy and Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a veteran pole dancer who takes a shine to the grizzled grappler.  Tomei fills in the blanks in an underwritten part (although the scene in which the merits of the 1980s are discussed feels phony), and Aronofsky effectively parallels the routines of the two characters.  Both Randy and Cassidy depend on their bodies, and the eyes of spectators, for their livelihood, and both figures are, according the story, past their prime.  The difference seems to be that Randy only comes to life when he pulls on his tights, while Cassidy is numb to the requirements of her occupation.

The writing practically trips over itself manufacturing a good reason why Randy and Cassidy cannot date one another (it’s against the rules!), but it is the Ram’s failed relationship with his now grown daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) that chokes the hardest on cliché.  Desperately hoping to reestablish a connection, Randy reaches out to the young woman, despite her reluctance to let him in to her life.  The handful of scenes between father and daughter allow Rourke an opportunity to deliver some juicy, moist-eyed apologies.

Throughout the movie, Aronofsky’s camera lingers over Randy’s battered physique, leaving no scar unexamined, no physical trauma unexplored.  Like one of the characters in the dreadful “Seven Pounds,” Randy is the owner of a weak and strained ticker, and the metaphoric possibilities are applied in broad strokes.  The manipulation of the audience hides in plain sight, but Rourke plays his part with so much pride and dignity, only the most cynical will fail to identify with the Ram.  Somehow, most of “The Wrestler” works real magic – thanks to Rourke – who delivers what might be the portrayal of his life, in both senses of the phrase.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/9/09.

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