The Wrestler
I’m getting too old for this shit.


Golden Mug

2008 GOLDEN MUG WINNER:

Best Actor (Mickey Rourke)
Best Supporting Actress (Marisa Tomei)

2008 GOLDEN MUG NOMINEE:

Best Picture
Best Director (Darren Aronofsky)
Best Original Screenplay (Robert D. Siegel)
Best Song (“The Wrestler” by Bruce Springsteen)


Theatrical Release Date: 12/17/2008 (limited), 01/09/2009 (wide)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

Often, a film can become something greater than the sum of its parts because of a real life similarity between its characters and its actors. Whether it’s the ability for the actor to better embody the role, the audience’s willingness to believe the actor or a mixture of the two – the result is an experience that makes going to the movies more than just two hours of escapism.

Such is the case with director Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, “The Wrestler.” A dramatic film written by Robert D. Siegel (a former editor-in-chief of the best fake news source on the planet, The Onion), the story is of a former superstar wrestler now working in an independent league well past his prime.

Wrestling fans know this story well, as so many giant wrestling stars from previous decades continue to haul their battered, bruised and aging bodies across the ring in order to make ends meet financially (having squandered their money or coming from an era where it didn’t pay) and perhaps more importantly to them, try to reclaim a piece of their former glory. It’s a sad, though somewhat noble story and because it’s happening everyday as we speak, it becomes that much more poignant and tangible.

To play the part of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, originally the studio wanted Nicolas Cage. This makes sense from a marketing and financial standpoint but no matter where you stand on Cage’s ability, this role would be too much of a stretch to work. Thankfully, Aronofsky had someone else in mind and stuck to his guns and fought for someone who could not only pull off the physical look and need of the character but completely identify with the psyche of it as well – Mickey Rourke.

No doubt by now, you’ve heard the whispers of Rourke’s masterful performance in the film … and oddly enough, that’s all been justified hype. His performance is category-defining, feeling so genuine that if you went into the film not knowing who he was, I contend that it would be possible to believe he was a real, former wrestling superstar doing a semi-bio/pic.

The mirror between Rourke’s acting career and that of his character’s wrestling career reflects nearly the same image (which is the point of a mirror and hence the metaphor). Both saw great success in their “prime” and then faded out of the limelight as time moved on. Rourke famously/infamously did a stint as a boxer, that no doubt helped him with some of the mindset needed for perseverance in real life and for this character. Aside from the physical demands of the role (and he did 99% of the wrestling in the film, adding 36 pounds of muscle to his frame and training for months), the added layers of the mental anguish the character endures make watching the film that much more fascinating.

Like many real wrestlers, his personal and family life has gone up in smoke. Evan Rachel Wood beautifully portrays his estranged daughter. Their dynamic is one of heartbreak and hope, and the chemistry between the two actors was outstanding.

Marisa Tomei plays a stripper that Rourke favors at the local club and the two have developed an surprisingly powerful bond, or maybe symbiosis might be a better term for it. There’s a clear need of one another, if nothing else than to feel like they aren’t completely alone in their fight to retain some small measure of dignity in lives that both professionally and personally tend to do just the opposite.

While it might seem superficially gratuitous to include an exotic dancer (which is the preferred nomenclature), the beauty of choosing to match these two up are the parallels in their lives. Both rely on their bodies for success and as they age, their opportunity for “love” from their audience fades. Their professions often make maintaining relationships and family near impossible and it is because of these similarities that they come to an understanding of one another. I’ll admit that it doesn’t hurt that Tomei looks fantastic without her clothes on but this is also a truly powerful acting performance from her, rivaling (and I think exceeding) her role in 2001′s “In the Bedroom”.

Now, all of this praise doesn’t mean that there isn’t a caveat to watching the film. If you’re squeamish about watching wrestling (especially one “hardcore” match that includes sharp foreign objects being used capriciously between the combatants), then there are going to be moments that might make you flinch. All of the wrestlers Rourke tussles with in the ring are real, most of them from the CZW league (Combat Zone Wrestling … which is an appropriate label). This adds to the authenticity of the film and longtime fans of the sport will find extra enjoyment in seeing their behind the scenes preparations – such as how they choreograph and layout their matches beforehand.

The brutality and bloody nature of much of it can be tough to watch for those not ready for it, but the payoff makes it worth it. You need to see the tortuous punishment these athletes take during “fake” wrestling … there’s nothing fake about falling onto tacks with your bare back, or jumping onto another person from the top rope, or taking a razor blade and cutting your forehead to amp up the spectacle and the crowd.

So while some will find the practice barbaric, the film does manage to convey the savage nobility of it as well, as these individuals risk life and limb for the entertainment of the masses. Aronofsky and company have done the same artistically, making the most of their paltry $6 million dollar budget and creating a truly profound film that should now sit in the pantheon of cinema reserved for creating iconic work that people will continue to identify subject material with – much in the same way that “Rocky” is boxing and “The Natural” is baseball.

Obviously, all of this praise means a good rating and I doubt you’re surprised that I’m giving “The Wrestler” a 5 out of 5. Every element of the film works and while wrestling fans will find more to connect to, the story is universal and should touch any audience with an open mind.

As a side note, it’s also worth mentioning that Bruce Springsteen wrote, performed and donated for free the closing credits song because of his close friendship with Rourke. It’s an excellent song, that perfectly matches up to the film and expect to be hearing this one played on-stage at the Oscars this February.

And one of the many other little nuggets of trivia learned from a Q&A with Aronofsky revealed that most of the background “actors” were real people. The small budget didn’t allow for extensive casting costs and this made reflecting on the scenes of Rourke working a deli counter (serving primarily real people who wandered into the store that day to buy fresh-cut meats) especially fun and genuine. This also made the crowd reactions to the wrestling seem so real, since they were actually there for the CZW wrestling and not the impromptu matches thrown in-between the real ones.