Poignant tale of ‘The Wrestler’
leaves something on the mat

In some ways, Darren Aronofsky makes a remarkable statement about life.

In other ways, he is outdirected by the guys who regularly put WWE material on the cable TV airwaves.

Much has been made of the Mickey Rourke “comeback” or “revival,” but his list of credits the last 10 years would still be the envy of many. What people really like is his ability to pack on the weight and look legitimately like a wrestler and something much different than the guy everyone (or a bunch of people, at least) recalls from “9 1/2 Weeks.”

Rourke without question is stellar. It is a fair question to ask, though, if an actual pro wrestler could’ve handled the part just as well, if not better, as Willie Nelson did in “Honeysuckle Rose.” After all, they’re trained actors too.

Rourke’s character, Randy “Ram,” is a simpleton. His strengths and weaknesses are immediately apparent — he’s a reliable public performer but an unreliable human being, someone who connects mightily with people on the highest showman stages, but not at ground level.

Thus we see him in a life we would probably expect of someone in his position. He lives in a trailer park, has posters of nude women on his walls, plays video games with little kids to pass the time, puts troubling things in his body, laments the demise of 1980s heavy metal, and struggles to come up with enough money to maintain even this sparse lifestyle.

Moviegoers must resist the impulse to mentally impart some basic — very basic — life tips to Randy. He is just famous enough that he could certainly find more promising work than what he does.

There is an obvious parallel with Rocky Balboa in “Rocky II,” a brawler type looking at least temporarily for an easier line of work, but there also are a few parallels with Buck Bonham in “Honeysuckle Rose.” Bonham is bigger and more mainstream, but both are regional celebrities who get around in old vehicles and play to limited, but adoring crowds. The performers, and thus the viewers, seem able to trust those who handle the money, and no time is wasted wondering if they’re being screwed. It’s a refreshing reminder that there is a living, and a reward, in being good at something, even if you never hit the really big time.

One advantage Randy would have, should he seek a more lucrative living, is that he is well-liked by most everyone, including the kids in his neighborhood, the regular Joes at the grocery store, and his peers. Some of the best scenes of “The Wrestler” are in the locker rooms, when the wrestlers discuss how they’ll perform and share tips. There is no phoniness here, just genuine respect for the craft — one is constantly resisting the temptation to call it a sport — and for the elder statesmen like Randy who continue to put butts in the seats. Many authentic pros contributed to this film. They are inspired, have creative ideas and take the shows very seriously. Given the choice of taking one’s children to a baseball dugout or wrestling locker room for autographs, the wrestlers might well get the nod.

Unfortunately, these moments are offset a bit by the pedestrian wrestling scenes, a serious flaw. Three matches are shown in extensive detail, and only one is the least bit entertaining as authentic pro wrestling. The first and last are simply not choreographed very well and utterly lack the energy that drives the industry — creating good guys and bad guys. We understand that Randy is more or less a good guy, but the wrestling isn't nearly as fun as the “real” (er, staged) stuff that regularly appears on cable TV. We get the (startling) pain and the health hazards, but not the full sense of excitement that undoubtedly keeps the Ram’s motor running. What’s there is, actually, a lesser version than the marvelously entertaining sequence in “Rocky III” when Thunderlips (of course, played by a real pro, Hulk Hogan) declares “it’s the ultimate male ... ver-sus ... the ultimate meatball,” then goes ballistic on Rock, then says, “That’s the name of the game.”

Aronofsky might argue his goal is not wrestling entertainment, but depicting what goes into wrestling entertainment. This would be the model of Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” This is important to serious fans and insiders but may not resonate so much with typical moviegoers. Aronofsky seems unwilling to let his audience have that much fun with his character.

This is a major disappointment on a couple of levels. One is the realization that the (talented) people staging pro wrestling on TV might be better at producing drama than an acclaimed Hollywood director. (That is disappointing only in the sense of how sensitive we are to the most base elements of drama.) The other is that Aronofsky misses a great opportunity to illustrate how easily entertainment-seekers are (willingly) manipulated. Here you have an event, people buy tickets to it or they watch it on TV, they know it is scripted, they know the performers are probably decent people in real life and not monsters, but they love watching these characters get their comeuppance.

If you’re inclined to dismiss that kind of drama as appealing to the lower half of the masses only, recall that a lot of Ivy Leaguers were no doubt happy to see the 18-0 New England Patriots defeated in the Super Bowl, watched every minute of it, and talked about it endlessly beforehand.

Aronofsky does succeed in regularly portraying Randy from behind. His cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, uses a grainy, gritty film reminiscent of “Rachel Getting Married” that constantly reminds us we’re dealing with a low-budget character. From the beginning we see the back of Randy’s head, striding, realizing his life is one of entering stages, and then when it’s over, disappearing into his quiet slice of reality. This is taken a bit too far when Randy is working at a deli counter, where a simple shot from behind would’ve been appreciated by an alert audience; instead he makes a grand entrance as Aronofsky appears to scream “Now he’s entering a new ring!!!!”

Rourke is believed to have lost a two-man showdown with Sean Penn (“Milk”) for the best actor Oscar. We’ll never know if he came one vote short, or hundreds. Penn was a stellar character in a weaker film, but one that is strong Oscar material. Some statisticians spend large amounts of time figuring out how Academy members will vote. The gut here is that Rourke lost because most in the Academy are turned off by pro wrestling, and because Penn is viewed as worthy of this award whereas Rourke is seen as a lesser pro who got lucky this time.

Long term? It feels like “The Wrestler” could fade, lacking the Thunderlips types of memorable scenes that ensure long-lasting appearances on cable TV.

“The Wrestler” is an excellent film. Yet there is something incomplete. The ending will not be divulged here though Aronofsky actually gives something away in his title. But one has to conclude that, by the end, Randy has left something on the table in all of the episodes he experiences. He surely has enhanced his view of reality in the process. But is that enough for the others he has dealt with? Did Randy make significant progress climbing life’s mountain and taking us to a stopping point ... or did he merely get halfway up and roll all the way back?

3.5 stars
(December 2008, updated February 2009)

“The Wrestler” (2008)
Starring Mickey Rourke as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson ♦ Marisa Tomei as Cassidy ♦ Evan Rachel Wood as Stephanie Robinson ♦ Mark Margolis as Lenny ♦ Todd Barry as Wayne ♦ Wass Stevens as Nick Volpe ♦ Judah Friedlander as Scott Brumberg ♦ Ernest Miller as The Ayatollah ♦ Dylan Summers as Necro Butcher ♦ Tommy Farra as Tommy Rotten ♦ Mike Miller as Lex Lethal ♦ Marcia Jean Kurtz as Admissions Desk Woman ♦ John D’Leo as Adam ♦ Ajay Naidu as Medic ♦ Gregg Bello as JAPW Promoter Larry Cohen ♦ Scott Siegel as Greg ♦ Maurizio Ferrigno as Spotter ♦ Donnetta Lavinia Grays as Jen ♦ Andrea Langi as Alyssa ♦ Armin Amiri as Dr. Moayedizadeh ♦ Lynn Tovale Anoai as Pharmacist ♦ Ryan Lynn as Strip Club Best Man ♦ Michael Drayer as Strip Club Bachelor ♦ Alyssa Bresnahan as Cheeques Bartender ♦ Jeff Chena as Hotel Bartender ♦ Vernon Campbell as Big Chris ♦ Felice Choi as Beautician ♦ Bernadette Penotti as Tanning Salon Owner ♦ Johnny Valiant as The Legend Johnny Valiant ♦ Ron Killings as Ron ‘The Truth’ Killings ♦ Giovanni Roselli as Romeo Roselli ♦ Robert Siegel as Autograph Fan #1 ♦ Scott Franklin as Autograph Fan #2 ♦ Sylvia Kauders as Hudson Acres Lady at Deli Counter ♦ Alissa Reisler as Young Housewife at Deli Counter ♦ Willy Rosner as Touchdown Man at Deli Counter ♦ Rebecca Darke as German Potato Salad Lady at Deli Counter ♦ E.J. Carroll as Teamster at Deli Counter ♦ Abraham Aronofsky as Annoyed Man at Deli Counter ♦ Charlotte Aronofsky as Annoyed Woman at Deli Counter ♦ T.J. Kedzierski as Jameson ♦ Jen Cohn as Get a Room Lady ♦ Maven Bentley as WXW Announcer ♦ Douglas Crosby as WXW Referee ♦ Larry Legend as CZW Announcer ♦ Nick Papagiorgio as CZW Referee ♦ Kevin Foote as ROH Announcer ♦ Jon Trosky as ROH Referee ♦ Andrew Anderson as Wrestler ♦ Austin Aries as Wrestler ♦ Blue Meanie as Wrestler ♦ Nicky Benz as Wrestler ♦ Brolly as Wrestler ♦ Lamar Braxton Porter as Wrestler ♦ Claudio Castagnoli as Wrestler ♦ Cobian as Wrestler ♦ Doc Daniels as Wrestler ♦ Bobby Dempsey as Wrestler ♦ Billy Dream as Wrestler ♦ Whacks as Wrestler ♦ Rob Eckos as Wrestler ♦ Nate Hatred as Wrestler ♦ Havoc as Wrestler ♦ DJ Hyde as Wrestler ♦ Inferno as Wrestler ♦ Joker as Wrestler ♦ Judas as Wrestler ♦ Kid U.S.A. as Wrestler ♦ LA Smooth as Wrestler ♦ Toa Maivia as Wrestler ♦ Kevin Matthews as Wrestler ♦ Devon Moore as Wrestler ♦ Pete Nixon as Wrestler ♦ Paul E. Normous as Wrestler ♦ Papadon as Wrestler ♦ Sabian as Wrestler ♦ Jay Santana as Wrestler ♦ Sugga as Wrestler ♦ Larry Sweeney as Wrestler ♦ Robert Rosen as Ring Announcer (voice) ♦ Elizabeth Wood as Melissa ♦ Kevin Cannon as Strip Club Hood ♦ Peter Conboy as Fan at table ♦ Richard Graves as Fan ♦ Piper Kenny as DJ ♦ Henry Kwan as Strip Club Patron ♦ Michael Marino as Medic #2 ♦ Robert Oppel as Wrestler ♦ Vincent James Russo as Wrestling Fan ♦ Erika Smith as Dancer ♦ Paul Thornton as Strip Club Patron ♦ Ben Van Bergen as Deli Customer

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Robert Siegel

Producer: Darren Aronofsky
Producer: Scott Franklin
Co-producer: Mark Heyman
Associate producer: Ari Handel
Executive producer: Vincent Maraval
Executive producer: Agnès Mentre
Executive producer: Jennifer Roth

Original music: Clint Mansell
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti
Editing: Andrew Weisblum
Casting: Suzanne Crowley ♦ Mary Vernieu
Production design: Tim Grimes
Set decoration: Theo Sena
Costume design: Amy Westcott
Makeup and hair: Judy Chin ♦ Mandy Lyons ♦ Marjorie Durand ♦ E. Morrow ♦ Michael Marino ♦ Jeffrey Rebelo ♦ Diana Sikes
Stunts: Douglas Crosby ♦ Jared Burke ♦ Jon Trosky ♦ Heather Arthur ♦ Jonathan Arthur
Production supervisor: Alexis Arnold
Production supervisor (Philadelphia): Frank Murray
Post-production supervisor: Colleen Bachman
Special thanks: Axl Rose

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