Review Catch-Up: “The Wrestler”

March 13, 2009 at 1:30 pm 1 comment

Yet another review that was stuck in my ‘Drafts’ folder for too long…

This year’s Oscar ceremonies hosts possibly one of the biggest upsets in recent Academy Awards history (at least in my opinion): Sean Penn’s win for ‘Best Actor’ over the heavily favored Mickey Rourke.  No, I won’t be taking this time to talk about the conspiracy theories surrounding the win (many of which point to political motivations by Academy members), but why I thought Rourke should’ve won over Penn.

The Wrestler tells the story of struggling pro wrestler Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke), whose popularity has waned since his heyday in the 80’s.  He now lives in a trailer park, suffers from several physical ailments, and struggles to make ends meet.  Despite his hardships, Randy continues to wrestle in small local shows, which take a heavy toll on his battered body.

The film has garnered much acclaim not only from film critics, but from professional wrestlers, all of whom praise Rourke’s performance as heartfelt, powerful, and emotional.  I have to agree.  The story of The Wrestler mimics Rourke’s real-life story; him being written off as a ‘has-been’ actor who has been all but forgotten by the general movie-going public.  With the exception of a great turn in Robert Rodriguez’s film adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005), Rourke has only been in small, ultimately forgettable roles throughout the 90’s and 2000’s.  The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky was adamant that he cast Rourke in the title role, and eventually won over objections by the studio.  The result is one of the most honest performances by an American actor in the past decade.

To reiterate something I said in my review of Milk, I believe that Sean Penn’s performance, while great, didn’t necessarily make the movie.  The script for the biopic, along with the direction and supporting cast, was strong enough that it would’ve been in a good movie regardless of whether or not Penn delivered a great performance or not.  I’m not saying that it didn’t matter who played Harvey Milk, I’m just saying that I got caught up in the story of that film, rather than the acting.  That being said, watch a scene from Milk, then watch archival footage of the real Harvey Milk, and Penn did an amazing job channeling the slain activist.

In the case of The Wrestler, it’s almost the opposite: Rourke’s performance made the movie.  I’m not saying that the movie was bad and that Rourke ‘saved it’, I’m just saying that I didn’t find the movie as interesting as the character of Randy ‘The Ram’.  I honestly feel that if anyone else was cast in the lead role, the film, as a whole, may not have been as good.  Comparing the two, I’d have to say Milk was a better film, but Mickey Rourke’s performance in The Wrestler was better than Penn’s.

Randy ‘The Ram’ is not exactly a likeable character.  He’s not mean, or evil, or abusive; he just makes really bad choices in his life and can’t seem to stop.  His daughter refuses to speak to him, he has trouble forming friendships, and he seems to live too ‘in the moment’.  But, what Rourke brings to the table is an everyman quality to the character.  Here’s a man that is struggling to get by, who could probably kill himself and no one would care, yet continues to soldier on and eek out this poverty-stricken existence in hopes that one day he’ll make it big.  Rourke’s performance is incredibly honest, showing us a man who is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

What keeps Randy going are two things: love of wrestling (despite the incredible beatings he receives), and love for his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).  Unfortunately, the two don’t go hand in hand, and Rourke guides Randy through these trouble waters with skill.  This is a performance that acting students will probably study for decades.

The rest of the cast is strong, as well.  Marisa Tomei plays Randy’s stripper friend who guys by the name of Cassidy, whom Randy has feelings for.  Tomei also shows incredible skill in handling her character.  Cassidy, being a single mother, must put her family first and becomes conflicted when the wants of Randy run opposite with the needs of her job.  The only issue, and it’s a minor one, that I have with a performance is Evan Rachel Wood.  When we first meet her, it’s painfully obvious she isn’t too fond of her dad, but in these first few scenes with her, there’s no subtlety to her actions.  However, the scene of her and Randy spending the day together is incredibly nuanced and very touching.  Basically, I feel that her performance becomes stronger as the film goes on; she comes off too strong in the beginning, then ‘just right’ toward the end.

Aronofsky’s direction seems very minimalist, allowing the characters to just exist in the scenes.  There seems to be an aimlessness to how the scenes move and how they’re paced, which is most likely deliberate considering the lack of motivation for Randy early on in the film.  There are, however, a few scenes that are very well blocked, such as Randy’s first day on the job behind the deli  counter at a supermarket.  The camera, as well as Rourke, move as if he’s getting ready for a big match.  Also, in that same scene, pay close attention to the sound design as it fits beautifully.

Is The Wrestler Mickey Rourke’s return to the Hollywood A-list?  He’s already been cast in the sequel to last year’s smash hit Iron Man, but will he ever again, get a role as good as Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson?  Who knows, but at the very least, he’ll be known for one of the best performances in American film history.  I’m almost tempted to give a separate score for the film and then the performance, but as a whole, The Wrestler is a strong film buoyed by an even stronger actor.

8.5/10

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. coffee maker  |  March 22, 2009 at 8:43 am

    Iron Man 2 is shaping up to have a stellar cast; plus John Favreau tends to do a great job in any case

    Reply

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