Sunday, February 8, 2009

On The Big Screen: THE WRESTLER (2008)

Mickey Rourke took home another award last night, the BAFTA for Best Actor this time. He looks pretty much unstoppable now, unless a groundswell lifts Sean Penn past him by Oscar time. Penn wouldn't be an unworthy winner, as his work in Milk was remarkable, but I saw The Wrestler yesterday, and in my mind the competition is over.

Darren Aronofsky's film of Robert D. Siegel's screenplay is clear-eyed when other hands might have made a tearjerker out of the story. It has a strong finishing kick, and it pulled away for me once it became clear that Rourke's character was not going to be redeemed. The Wrestler is consistent with Aronofsky's merciless vision as expressed in Pi and Requiem For A Dream. It is also a film of its time, attuned to a certain historic moment -- or at least it seems so now. That's because it isn't so much a satire or denunciation of professional wrestling as it is a pre-emptive strike against nostalgia for the 1980s.

Robin "Randy 'the Ram' Robinson" Radzinski is a creature of the 1980s, and still seems to live there. His personal soundtrack is all hair bands, and he wears his own hair long in a manner many current grapplers still prefer. He still has a primitive Nintendo system in his trailer so he can play an ancient video game in which he starred. He still sells VHS tapes of his glory days at fan fests. He actively dislikes the 1990s, as embodied by the music and attitude of Kurt Cobain. The 80s, by contrast, were all about having fun, and as Randy asks, "What's wrong with having fun?" Those were his years on top of the business, climaxed by his famous match with The Ayatollah, which will be restaged at the movie's climax. We are invited to see Randy (as he prefers to be called most of the time) as an embodiment of the 80s and a consequence of its excesses. Since I don't love the 80s, I may be biased toward this interpretation, but I stand by it.

What Randy the Ram really is is problematic, especially for himself. He doesn't care to be called "Robin" or "Mr. Radzinski," and is chagrined at having to wear a "Robin" nameplate while working the deli counter at a grocery store. On the other hand, he feels an even greater humiliation when someone recognizes him as "that wrestler from the 80s" on the job. It's okay to be Randy the Ram in the ring or the locker room or at a signing event, but not when your decline and decrepitude can't be denied amid the shelter of peers or fans. He can only be himself in the ring or among his peers. In this way, the Ram is reminiscent of all the ruined wrestlers in real life who came to believe their own hype, who had to believe that they were the heroes or heels they portrayed in the squared circle. Randy isn't as self-deluding as some real-life counterparts, and for much of the picture he seems clear-headed about his plight. He doesn't put on airs, he doesn't seem to be a jerk, and he's friendly toward just about everyone. That leaves you wondering why he fell from grace in the first place. As a onetime wrestling fan I could fill in the blanks myself, but other viewers might wonder whether Randy had only caught some bad break during the 90s. It's not until fairly late, once the real plot of the film has kicked in, that we understand Randy's problems.

Recovering from a heart attack and bypass surgery following an authentically brutal "extreme" wrestling match, Randy faces the medical necessity of retiring from wrestling. At this point, despite his tentative friendship with Cassidy the stripper, Randy realizes that he's alone in life, and feels a need to reconnect with his estranged daughter and repent for his neglectful ways. At the same time, he starts to signal that he wants more of a relationship with Cassidy. He fails at both ventures.

Cassidy is a parallel or mirror character to Randy. Her real name is Pam, and she prefers to be known that way outside the strip club. She has a kid, too, younger than Randy's, and she's still young enough herself to envision a future and a career beyond stripping. She warms toward Randy but governs herself according to a stripper version of the wrestlers' kayfabe code: no relationships with customers. It doesn't matter than she's considering quitting stripping, which would make Randy no longer a customer. The fact that he has been a customer seems like an insurmountable obstacle for a long while. Pam is on the brink of overcoming this scruple when Randy returns to his own business, triggered by his daughter's definitive rejection of him. That resulted when he gives into temptation in a way, we must deduce, that he has done all too often before. An offer of casual sex at a bar turns to drugs and more booze, and Randy misses a delicately planned dinner date with the nearly-reconciled daughter. Randy's humilation at the grocery store and a bridge-burning tantrum closely follow. Already rebuffed by Pam, Randy has nothing left, he believes, but the ring and the fans. He makes a comeback despite doctor's orders, telling Pam that "I only ever got hurt out there" -- in the outside, real world. Pam finally experiences a role reversal, becoming the spectator while someone she's started to care for becomes a mere performer, a "piece of meat" in his own earlier words. And instead of seeing Randy in his true glory, as he imagines it, she's horrified and flees the building. Noticing her absence, the Ram seems to sigh as he climbs up for what may prove a literal finishing move, as if her action confirmed the correctness of his course.

Randy the Ram and Cassidy, -- or would it be Robin and Pam, incognito, -- or maybe Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei on location? Identity is a problem in THE WRESTLER
(photo from )

The Wrestler ends in a kind of suspense. We'll never know if Randy died in the ring that night, or hours later when the painkillers kicked in, or weeks or months later. But we do know that Randy has signed a kind of death sentence, if only for Robin Radzinski, and that the Ram, for as long as he survives, will only be the shell of a man. He is a loser, a "fuckup" as his daughter says, who by his own admission deserves to be alone. He has given up and opted once and for all for the escapism of the ring. That viewers don't end up despising him and then simply dismissing the movie is Mickey Rourke's triumph. He makes Randy likable without compromising the qualities that doom him. He establishes the potential remaining within Randy that makes his failures tragic. But if we're going to throw awards his way, how about sparing one for Marisa Tomei. Once upon a time she got one of those "new talent" supporting actress Oscars that rarely seem justified in retrospect. Now she's paid some dues, and shows it, and if she wins this time I won't dispute that she earned it.

I'm willing to put The Wrestler on my own list of the five best U.S. films of last year. It shouldn't surprise you, then, to learn that I deplore the Academy's failure to nominate the film for Best Picture, or Aronofsky for Best Director, or Siegel for Original Screenplay. It may not be fair to the four films nominated that I haven't seen, but I can't imagine that they're better, and having seen Milk and liked it, I know it isn't better. But the Academy often works this way, which is why people come up with alternative Oscars. I suspect, however, that one of those won't be necessary in the Best Actor category.

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