Fri, Feb 20, 2009 - Page 16 News List

The reticent warrior

Despite a formulaic plot and hokey sentimentality, ‘The Wrestler’ still packs quite a punch


VIEW THIS PAGE Everyone knows professional wrestling is fake. Everyone knows the same about movies. In both cases the eager spectators simultaneously admire the artifice and pretend it isn’t there, allowing themselves to believe that those people down in the ring or up on the screen are truly inflicting pain on one another.

The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s fourth feature (and winner of the top prize at the Venice Film Festival last year), cannily exploits this parallel and at the same time shows that, in both movies and wrestling, the line between reality and play-acting may be less clear than we assume. Shooting his battered hero mainly in trudging, hand-held tracking shots, Aronofsky, whose earlier movies include the brain-teasing Pi and the swooning, fantastical, unwatchable Fountain, here makes a convincing show of brute realism.

The supermarkets, trailer parks, VFW halls and run-down amphitheaters of New Jersey are convincingly drab, and the grain of the celluloid carries a sour and salty aura of weariness and defeat. But the story that emerges is disarmingly sweet, indeed at times downright saccharine — a familiar parable of squandered second chances. It’s a bit phony, perhaps, but to refuse to embrace the movie’s deep hokiness would be to cheat yourself of some of the profound pleasure it offers.

Randy (the Ram) Robinson, played with sly, hulking grace by Mickey Rourke, is anything but a phony, in spite of the fact that nothing about him is quite genuine. His real name, which he can’t stand to hear, is Robin Ramsinski; his muscles are puffed up with steroids, and it’s highly doubtful that his flowing mane is naturally blond. But this careful fakery is, to some extent, what certifies Randy as the real thing, an authentic, passionate, natural performer. The description fits Rourke as well.







Back in the 1980s, both the real actor and the fictional wrestler were superstars. (A monologue eulogizing that decade and cursing the one that followed has an obvious and piquant double meaning; that the speech is addressed to the character played by Marisa Tomei, whose career hit some snags of its own in the later 1990s, makes it all the more touching.)

Rourke was a tenderhearted tough guy with a crooked smile and a gentleness that came through even tough-guy poses and bad movies. Randy, meanwhile, was a giant in the world of pro wrestling, inspiring action figures and video games and plying his brutal trade in top arenas like Madison Square Garden.

Now, 20 years later, he — Randy, that is — has been relegated to a shabbier existence. He has trouble making the rent on his trailer, and his health is failing. His professionalism, however, is undiminished, and the most moving and persuasive scenes in The Wrestler show the Ram backstage with the men who are his comrades and rivals, working out the finer points of their routines with a warmth and respect completely at odds with the viciousness they display in the ring.

With a younger wrestler, Randy is warm and avuncular, praising the kid’s ability and urging him to stay in the game. Others, many of them played by active or retired

real-life wrestlers, he refers to without affectation as “Brother.”

While the fights are choreographed, the pain and the blood are frequently real. We are privy to tricks of the trade, like the tiny bit of razor blade that Randy uses to open a cut on his face in the middle of a bout. And we witness a horrifying match involving broken glass, barbed wire and a staple gun, all of it agreed upon by the combatants.

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