Oct 13, 2008

NY Film Festival: The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler is a classic fighter movie and it is a conventional melodrama full of clichés. However, there is something so painfully vibrant about it, that it transcends its very conventional story in ways that particularly resonate today.I see it as a metaphor of the decline of the American empire, no less. It is very telling that even a classic movie like this could not get funding in its own country. (The French had to come to the rescue. Increasingly, it looks to me that the French are the only people interested in keeping movies -- not Hollywood product -- alive today. They may be the real superheroes saving cinema for us. Merci!)
The Wrestler tells the story of Randy the Ram, played gloriously and with utter guts by Mickey Rourke, in an astonishing performance. Randy is a has-been wrestler, traveling a humble wrestling circuit in New Jersey (the WWF, this ain't). He is plagued by the injuries sustained during years of being smashed and battered in the ring. He lives alone in a mobile home, or in his truck, when he can't pay the rent. He wears his hair long and dyed peroxide blond. He also wears an earpiece. For all the fakery of the spectacle, the damage to his body is real. He is Christlike in the amount of stigmata he bears, and I guess it is no coincidence he is the Ram and not the Boar or the Bull (sacrificial lamb, anyone?). He is the all-American hero of the crazy spectacle of wrestling, with its theatrical, prearranged victories. But now he is old, battered and broke and heartbreakingly sad. He is also a magnificent, royal fuck-up. It is a beautiful character; a sweet natured person lost in total loss. The loss of his body, the loss of an income, the loss of a family. As a metaphor for our state of being today, we can include the loss of his powers, of his prodigious reputation, of his pride, of his standing in the world.
Now, the meta factor in the casting of Mickey Rourke makes this movie even more devastating. There isn't any other actor who could have played this part. To look at Rourke's destroyed face is heartbreaking. I can't get over it. His face is so swollen and bizarre that one can barely see his eyes, and still through the mask of surgeries and crushed bones, the character comes alive, and Rourke is killer. There will be an Oscar nomination for him. There should be.
As the Magnificent Arepa notes, The Wrestler doesn't tell you anything that Raging Bull, for instance, has not said better, but the choice of the goofy, weird, almost transcendent universe of wrestling, with its simplistic pageantry of good vs. evil, is what makes this movie unique.
I also loved the fact that this movie takes place in the underground of American life, at the bottom of the barrel, which is fast becoming the norm: the world of Americans without money, without education, without options. Everybody in this movie is struggling, nobody is remotely middle class (the highest status person is a snotty supermarket manager who likes feeling superior to Randy, who works there to supplement his meager income). The main characters are pulling themselves by the bootstraps to be wrestlers or strippers, and of course they are barely making it. The fabled American prosperity is not in evidence anywhere in this film.
Talking about strippers, let us all now praise Marisa Tomei. She plays Pam, a mercurial stripper the Ram is in love with. Number one, this woman looks better than the $700 billion bailout. Her body, to quote that awful song, is a wonderland, but her face has not been ravaged yet by the epidemic of plastic surgery in vogue in Hollywood (or if it has, she has a really good surgeon). Tomei owns her age and bless her for it. I defy any pole dancer in reality to be as stunningly erotic as this woman.
Number 2, to Tomei's immense credit, she is not the stripper with the heart of gold, but rather with the heart of rust. She, like the Ram, is trying hard to make a living and she is afraid of mixing business with love. Tomei's face registers different feelings faster than a car that goes from 0 to 60. She is sexy, fake, genuinely concerned and cold as ice in less that it takes me to write this sentence. Total Oscar bait.
The storyline of the movie is a tearjerker (wrestler loves stripper, stripper rebuffs him; wrestler looks for long lost daughter who hates him, etc). I have to say that the worn melodrama made my enthusiasm flag a couple of times. There is a subplot involving Randy's long lost daughter (the annoyingly overestimated Evan Rachel Wood) that seems right out of Mildred Pierce, but Aronofsky's love and curiosity for the world of z-rate wrestling is so compelling that he almost saves the movie from total maudlin corn.
There is sweet humor in the film, and to be given a pass to the backstage camaraderie of wrestlers is touching and delightful. The movie is openhearted and generous, but Aronofsky balances it with a healthy dose of brutal reality. The humiliations of the Ram are legion and they are lovingly detailed. The movie has a great vitality, thanks no doubt to the excellent cinematography by Maryse Alberti; a lot of handheld camera, the fight scenes shot from very up close, the daylight gray and wintry and the interiors bright and tawdry. Oscar for her too!
As befits our new reality, The Wrestler ain't no song of triumph over adversity a la Rocky. Quite the contrary, it seems that adversity has trumped triumph. This is a story of relentless, useless sacrifice. And so it seems with America today. Those who are sacrificing find it is all for nought, for the wrong values and the wrong outcomes.
The Ram's dogged pursuit of everything that eludes him has a certain valiant, misguided nobility to it, but beleaguered and alone, his pride hurt, he loses his instinct for self-preservation and there is no happy ending.

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