Every once in a while, a low-budget movie from an independent distributor creates enough of a stir to make a serious push for a gold statue. As to whether such movies are actually good, well, that’s a crap-shoot. In 2008, The Wrestler was such a movie. I’ve been wanting to see it for a while because (a) I grew up a huge fan of pro wrestling and (b) I’ve been intrigued by Mickey Rourke’s own life after reading his comments that, were it not for being Catholic, he would have killed himself.
Say what you will about Rourke, he’s actually a very good actor, and it shows through here. Others agreed, as he won a Golden Globe award for his performance. He lost out for the Oscar to Sean Penn for his role in Milk. Gee, I wonder if there was any voter bias there. The only other “name” in the movie is Marisa Tomei, who is the love interest and still trying to overcome her early Oscar for My Cousin Vinny.
The plot of the film follows an admittedly washed up wrestler named Randy “The Ram” Robinson, in his attempt to live. That’s it. You see a lot of the synopses talk about this movie focusing on Robinson making some kind of comeback, but that is largely irrelevant. This is about a guy just trying to get by from day to day. He’s alone. His only family is an estranged (putting it mildly) daughter. He has to pay for his only consistent company (Tomei’s role being that of a stripper). He has the camaraderie of the locker room, but those moments are fleeting and transient, not to mention predicated on the infliction of a great deal of pain given what these guys put their bodies through. Eventually, Robinson understands that his life is empty and throws himself into trying to fix it. His weakness always takes him back to the ring, though.
The main problem with The Wrestler is that it has the misfortune to be directed by Darren Aronofsky. I know that strikes some people as on par with blasphemy, but there’s no getting around it here. Mr. Aronofsky is not devoid of talent. The problem seems to be that he knows he’s talented and, in an effort to live up to his press clippings, tries way too hard to show off. For example, I’m sure more than a few critics drooled over the constant tracking shots following the back of Rourke’s head. Genius for some, incredibly annoying for others. Put me in the annoyed camp. Sure, he got great performances out of the main characters, but I’m not sure how much of that was him and how much was the strength of Rourke and Tomei.
As with any Aronofsky movie, don’t watch it if you are expecting anyone to be happy. It’s all very dark, very in-your-face, and very depressing. This doesn’t necessarily make it a bad movie, but I mention it in light of the people I know who hated it for these reasons. It’s important for audiences to know their filmmakers and not hold it against them for doing what they do. Also, as with any Aronofsky movie, there is nothing in this for kids. Bad language, nudity in Tomei’s club, and a fairly graphic, albeit brief, sex scene convinced me that my kids could watch it once they get to be 30 or so. Granted, nothing in these acts is glorified; quite the contrary, but this is not a film about innocence of any sort.
Now, as to whether or not you should watch it. It all depends. If the language and scenes I mentioned are unacceptable for you, avoid this movie. More than that, if you are apt to hate portrayals of psychological/emotional anguish, absolutely do not watch The Wrestler. Those are my disclaimers. However, outside of that, the performances are strong enough that I say yes. Despite some of the annoyances I mentioned, it’s a good movie about the nature of despair and how the remedy for such a thing will never come from the self. To a large degree, I would compare it to a modern, vulgar version of Walker Percy. The emptiness within can’t be filled by our own efforts, and as The Wrestler portrays, trying to do so is often quite self-destructive.
I give this film two tiaras: perhaps good for a specific niche or a private collection; alright performances but nothing stellar.