The Wrestler is a curious, somewhat compelling, ultimately self-flagellating Last Round-Up/Title Bout/Big Score movie that, like its protagonist, grows more grotesque as it tries to bulk up and mean something.
The film's first shot depicts exhausted grappler Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) slumped on a folding chair in what looks like an elementary school classroom. Turns out he's in the green room of yet another impromptu wrestling arena. Twenty years after his greatest success, Randy now lumbers up and down the Jersey shore, subsisting on fan adoration and envelopes full of rumpled cash. He loves Quiet Riot and Mötley Crüe, plays Nintendo, and lives in a trailer from the music video for Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." The '80s nostalgia is so thick that it's no surprise to hear a new Bruce Springsteen song that could have been an outtake from The River.
Yet, in the ring, the clock stops, and Randy is once again "The Ram" of glorious squared-circle lore. And no matter the venue, his fellow wrestlers — all in various stages of breakdown and disrepair — indulge this immortality fantasy by maintaining an air of let's-put-on-a-show collegiality. They're all crafty, genial professionals, and The Wrestler is most compelling when it explores these men's working lives. The miles of athletic tape, the informal strategy sessions ("Bring the heat early," urges one tag-team member to another), and the cornucopia of pharmaceuticals available for the war against old age and saggy pecs all command as much screen time as Randy's own internal conflicts. Other, more intimate exchanges are important, too. The fact that Randy's opponent in a gruesome ladder/barbed wire/staple gun match calls him "sir" and the Ram's pre-match gesture of flicking a fly off his shoulder give wrestling conventions the aura (if not the import) of ritual.
Director Darren Aronofsky, whose last film was the laughable The Fountain, has never bothered with ethnographic and behavioral details like this before; he's usually too busy assembling jump-cut scenes as preparation for his films' inevitable big leap into big thoughts. But the very thingness of the things he notices, like the stacks of The Best of the Ram VHS tapes on Randy's card table at a VFW publicity appearance or the fanny pack Randy uses to make change for autograph hounds, ground the film's first 40 minutes.
These precise details are subsumed in the storytelling tides once Randy suffers a heart attack after a match. Stock characters and scenarios march out like shock troopers to oppress the rest of this fitfully observant movie. Once Randy has to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), work through his feelings about confused stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), and ponder whether he should participate in one final match, the movie's sense of place and locale loses focus. Some good working-class moments and sights — Cassidy trying to hustle lap dances from a customer, Randy passing out in his own bed after a loony encounter with a groupie — are left behind as Aronofsky pursues something more which is actually something much less.
And once the big issues emerge — aging, sacrifice, faith, flesh, and showbiz — Aronofsky's barely suppressed interest in bodily mutilation emerges, too, notably in Randy's meltdown at a deli counter. Just look closely at the Jesus tattoo on Randy's back or Cassidy's jest about the "sacrificial Ram." At the climax of the film, it's not clear what this low-rent martyr is sacrificing himself for: It's a gesture of self-abnegation more than one of redemption. His final leap from the top rope into memory and oblivion hardly seems worth the struggle it took to get up there in the first place.
Opening Friday, January 23rd
Studio on the Square