Movie News & Reviews

'The Wrestler' succeeds with sad tale

Once in a bar (man, I wish I had a story that didn't start that way),I expressed to the girls we were with that if I had the money, I'dretire then and there.

To my shock, they were shocked! It was as if wanting topermanently quit working somehow made me childish and lazy.Bafflingly, I never heard from them again, which gave me plenty oftime to decide I was right after all. Imagine: waking each day torealize you've been asleep three days, the joy of exchanging yourboring old teeth for steel-plated dentures, the serene comfort inknowing that, some day soon, everyone you've always hated will eitherbe dead or as old and saggy as you.

But after watching Mickey Rourke struggle with retirement in TheWrestler, I think those girls were right, and if they weren'tdoubtlessly all buried or senile by now, I'd tell them so. That'sbiological existence for you. Just when you realize that walking sackof organic compounds over there was on to something, it's gone anddecomposed into a pile of something that's a terrible conversationist.

Twenty years ago, Mickey Rourke's character -- Randy "The Ram" Robinson -- was the name in wrestling, a man whosefights drew 20,000 fans. These days he's wearing down, weekend venuespulling two or three hundred; he's locked out of his trailer fornonpayment, working weekdays in a grocery store to get by.

Rourke's promoter wants to arrange an anniversary rematch of hisbiggest fight, but then Rourke's knocked down by a heart attack. Hisdoctor tells him to retire. Lonely and adrift, he tries to connect toMarisa Tomei, a stripper he goes way back with. Her advice: get backin touch with the daughter he's ignored all his life.

Easy said, harder done. Without wrestling, Rourke's life may be over.

As you can see, The Wrestler is the most uplifting story sinceyou found your ex's name in the obituaries. But while it's got itsgrim moments -- more than anything, it feels exhausted, as beat down andquietly desperate as Rourke himself -- director Darren Aronofskyestablishes an understated, ground-level tone that downplays both thesadness and the successes of Rourke's life.

It's a part that fits Rourke as tight as his Spandex. For whateverreason, he only gets hauled out of the meat locker every 3-4years -- maybe he spends his off time tunneling through mountains withhis iron-hard face -- and here, as usual, he's outstanding. Really, he'splaying two parts: showy hero when he's in the ring, just anotherloser when he's out of it.

But some of The Wrestler's best moments are the ones inbetween, the routine, almost embarrassing details Rourke has to puthimself through to prep for the big spectacle: fake tans, dying hisroots, injecting steroids into his old ass, roughing out the fight'schoreography with his opponent before they start whaling on eachother. Someone less talented than Aronofsky -- "hacks," we call them, oroccasionally "Michael Bay" -- would mine this stuff for cheap laughsrather than letting it speak for itself.

The director's judgment is reserved when it comes to his characters,too. It's a damn good thing; as far as cliches go, "has-been trying tomake good on his screwed-up life" and "lady who gets naked for moneybut is actually more like a saint than a whore" are older than thePyramids. (But younger than Mount Rushmore. Don't swallow theFreemasons' lies.)

When we're not perpetually told how to feel about Rourke and Tomei,all we're left to go on are their actions. Some are noble, some arestupid, most are as confused and compromised as the ones we make inreal life. Despite its melancholy, The Wrestler ends strangelytriumphant, a howl against ever settling for less than you need.

Grade: A