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Movie Review: The Wrestler

'Wrestler' is an emotional body slam
The Wrestler
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 105 min
MPAA rating: R (for violence)
Release Date: 2008-12-17
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By "Lawrence Toppman"
The Charlotte Observer

The best way to make a comeback in Hollywood is not to disappear but to make a succession of bad movies, then cap it with a good one. If you've been humbled long enough, the murmurs about an Oscar begin to build.

That's the case with Mickey Rourke's performance in “The Wrestler.” Any actor mocked or ignored for 20 years has to identify with a character who saw his star fade in the 1980s but has plugged away in obscurity.

Emotions ooze slowly out of his creased and battered face in Darren Aronofsky's latest heart-wrenching, hard-to-market drama. The film's a little more accessible than “Requiem for a Dream” and a lot easier to understand than “The Fountain,” but its low-key grunginess may restrict its appeal to people who have liked professional wrestling and/or Rourke.

He plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who's on the wrong side of 50 for a profession where you can catch a metal folding chair in the skull. He got the nickname for a patented pinning move in the ring, but he has earned it by confronting every problem in life head-on, without compromise or even a second thought.

When he's drunk, he lives back in the glory days, where he wrestled for spangled belts and big paychecks. When he's sober, he lives in a trailer in North Jersey and realizes he'd better supplement his dwindling ring income with a steady job.

A doctor warns Randy that heart will give out if he overstrains it, so he has extra impetus to cut meat in a supermarket instead of cutting up opponents in the ring. But he's offered one last big purse if he'll take a 20th-anniversary bout with an old enemy. Here the plot suggests the “Rocky” films, though “The Wrestler” is more scrupulously honest than any of those and not one-tenth as sentimental.

Director Aronofsky and writer Robert Siegel know the world of low-budget wrestling and present it with clear-eyed affection. Randy battles in unheated high school gyms and doctors himself with tape and painkillers. We see small tricks of the trade, such as a razor blade tucked into his tights; the Ram uses it to nick his own forehead, producing superficial cuts that stream blood.

When he attends fan “conventions” so small they can fit into one room, he sells highlight reels from his career. That moment shows Siegel and Aronofsky's eye for detail: Randy still peddles VHS tapes in a DVD world.

Randy has no better luck with women. He imagines he has a relationship with the stripper who gives him lap dances, but she's afraid to waste compassion on this broken-down hulk; she's chasing the dream of moving with her child to a better climate and a worthier job. (Native Brooklynite Marisa Tomei is ideally cast. At 43, she seems to be glorying in time's minimal effect on her body.)

He has long since abandoned hope for a warm relationship with his estranged daughter (Raleigh's Evan Rachel Wood). But he plugs away anyhow, absorbing her scorn in the hope that he'll finally prove he can be a dependable dad. He bulls forward obstinately with gifts and advice, though he suspects she won't want either, and he has no idea how to grapple with the idea that she's probably a lesbian.

Despite Randy's exterior, which verges on the makeup in TV's “Beauty and the Beast,” Randy is a genial soul: He gets along especially well with wrestlers, who consider him a friend and an icon. “Do you mind if I use a staple gun?” politely inquires an opponent, whose ring character is that of a deranged hillbilly.

The film remains resolutely small: There can be no “Rocky”-sized vindications in Aronofsky's stories. That may frustrate audiences used to definitive triumphs or defeats, but those would be out of place in the grubby, inhospitable circles through which the Ram now plods. The best he can hope for, like the actor who embodies him, is to remind the world he still deserves to be taken seriously.

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01/22/2009 - The Charlotte Observer - Lawrence Toppman

In comeback role, Mickey Rourke grapples grippingly with age, despair and longing for glory days.

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