Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mickey Rourke wrestles with pain

Is Mickey Rourke still part of the human race? Watching Rourke in "The Wrestler," I wasn't entirely sure. Rourke's head seems too large for his body. His face looks swollen, as if he's gobbled massive doses of steroids or taken one too many punches. His body appears to be in good shape, but in "The Wrestler," Rourke moves in the slow, lumbering way of a man whose joints have gone on strike. And when you think of Rourke, perhaps as you saw him in such early movies as "Body Heat" and "Diner," you can't help but wonder what series of calamities produced the face that looms so large before you now.

I suppose it all makes sense in context. In "The Wrestler," Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a once famous wrestler who can't walk away from his gravely diminished share of the spotlight. With director Darren Aronofsky's at the helm, Rourke gives a performance that's not easily classified. It's both physical and eerily offbeat. Rourke turns Randy into a hunk of meat (his own description) but one with flickers of soul. There's already been Oscar talk. I don't know about that, but I will say that Rourke's work proves oddly effective, and it looks as if he put himself through physical hell to get where he needed to go.

Working from a script by Robert D. Siegel, Aronofsky goes easy on style, an unusual choice for the director of movies such as the propulsive "Requiem for a Dream" or "The Fountain," which was visually dazzling but intellectually slack. If someone told you that "The Wrestler" happened to be a first film, you might believe it. Aronofsky opts for the kind of gritty texture that's sometimes found on the indie circuit, and which makes the most of New jersey strip joints, makeshift wrestling arenas and Ram's disorderly trailer, the home from which he's periodically evicted for non-payment of rent. Ram, who was big during the '80s, survives by working part time at a local supermarket and by wrestling for small purses on the weekends.

The best parts of the movie involve Aronofsky's depiction of wrestling on the cheap. The fights are staged, but the wrestlers take a beating nonetheless. They cut themselves with razors to give the crowd the bloodshed it craves. One wrestler likes to inject staples into his and his opponent's bodies. These wrestlers -- some on the way up and others on the way out -- work hard to please their fans. The banter among the wrestlers feels authentic, and some of the matches are difficult to watch. You can feel the pain that goes into creating the illusion of unrestrained combat.

The story follows a somewhat predictable arc. As events unfold, Randy receives a chance to make amends with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and perhaps to start a genuine relationship with a lap dancer (Marisa Tomei) he's met in a strip club. Tomei has received lots of praise for her work as a woman who has been forced to wall herself off emotionally but still put on a pleasant face for the customers. She's offering a variation of the hooker with a heart of gold, and most of the picture passes before her character takes a chance on her emotions. As a single mom with limited talent, Tomei's Cassidy can't afford to lose focus.

But the main event is Rourke. Ram can't find meaning away from the business that has given him notoriety and destroyed his body. Outside the ring, he's lost. He doesn't know how to talk to his daughter, and he doesn't understand responsibility well enough even to run away from it.

In an attempt to quit the ring after a bypass operation, Ram takes a full-time job at the local supermarket. He's working the deli counter. He approaches employment with humor and style, but he's not really suited for steady work. He's pushed by desires that go beyond egg salad and luncheon meats. He wants to be recognized and he also wants to punish himself. Only one place offers such a potent combination, the wrestling ring, a venue where bold gestures make sense. Rourke wisely plays agains Aronofsky's tendency toward overstatement. He slows his roll, and it works for him. Ram knows that he's close to the bottom of the barrel, but he seems relaxed about it, as if failure were a noble calling.

Rourke may not always look human, but his appearance becomes an indelible part of Ram's bruised humanity. Ram shambles through what remains of his former glory. Lots of movie characters have met with similar fates, and, like them, Ram is pitiable, a man for whom personal fulfillment and physical pain are tied up in the same impossible package. Even when he wins, Ram loses. He's just not a second-chance kind of guy.

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