Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Wrestler

Dir. Darren Aronofsky

Viewed: In the Balcony

It would make fun reading to see a dissertation on professional wrestling in America and the place it holds in our culture. What, exactly, is going on among the world of body oil, tights, and plentiful folding chairs that makes it so appealing to certain classes of people (and wrestling, more than almost any other form of entertainment, has an identifiable class element among its fan base)? It's all strange gender roles, substitutes for sexuality and masculinity, violence, and deception - pretty much the standard buffet of themes for any half-decent postdoc in literary studies, sociology or anthropology.

For starters, it's about as low-brow an entertainment as you can fund. Most perplexing to normal adults, and a comment I heard often in my younger days as a WWF fan, is 'how you can care about something that is so obviously fake?' And it's true that there is some cognitive dissonance going on to both know the events are staged and the outcome predetermined and yet still act and care as if it were real life playing out before your eyes. But maybe it's not all that weird. Had I been a more clever child, I might have simply responded to those looking down on my cultural consumption: 'hey, you like movies, don't you?'

Randy "The Ram" Robinson, the titular character of Darren Aronofsky's moving if too-often conventional The Wrestler, is of course as much a fictional creation as any contest between The Ultimate Warrior and King Kong Bundy. It's all fake: contrived images, personae, and dramatic elements created with the intention to manipulate the emotions of the audience. But rarely, if ever, have I heard the complaint about film, literature, or art: 'how can you care about that, it's fake!'

The difference lies not in the form - violence is as common in film as the world of professional wrestling - but in the judgment of the produced emotions themselves. Good fiction - like, say, The Wrestler - leads a person to empathy while bad fiction - like, say, the WWF - leads to something like blood lust. That, anyway, is my quick guess on the matter; I'll leave it to the literature and anthropology departments to explore further.

I don't know if Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel were thinking about exploring the nature of fiction when they made The Wrestler, but fittingly the movie is at its best when it recreates the fictional world of wrestling rather than the more traditional movie ground of 'real' human relationships. Randy, apparently played by some sort of novice alien shape-shifter trying out 'Mickey Rourke', careens between the world of the 'squared circle' and the world of real life. In the ring, he is a God; in real life, a self-described 'fuck up,' and the slight dramatic narrative of the movie is driven by which life he will eventually chose.

It's the performance in the 'real world' of relationships and family that will likely gain Rourke the Oscar, but the most impressive stuff comes in the ring. In fact, a rollicking all-wrestling beginning is severely hampered by the cloying second act as Randy moves away from the ring and into the lives of two women: Pam, a stripper played by the always game Marisa Tomei and Stephanie, played by the worst actress I've seen in some time, Evan Rachel Wood.

I'll start with Tomei, whose performance, combined with the opening scene of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, leaves little to be desired. I suppose I'm not alone in thinking Tomei is just a marvelous actress with a stunningly gorgeous face, but her performance merits noting - it's not quite the transformation of Rourke's, but I'm surprised that few reviews mentioned how good she was.* In a world other than Hollywood, her role could have been fleshed out more, and we could have had a better movie entitled The Wrestler and the Stripper.

*I've since read Sean Burns's review, and (as I could have guessed) points out how great Tomei was.

Unfortunately, Randy's attentions are split, and he is forced to leave his budding romance with Pam to try to rebuild a relationship with his estranged daughter, played by the insufferable Wood. This girl simply cannot act. About half-way through the movie, after all the well-paced attention to subtlety and detail put into Randy and Pam's characters, it's near criminal to see Wood's shrieking cardboard figure. She isn't helped by the fact that the father-daughter thing seems to be added as padding or Oscar-filler, but I can't imagine seeing a more melodramatic show this side of soap opera.

Wood's performance and the general sluggishness of the second act aside, Aronofsky has made a pretty good film with a pretty damn awesome main character. If there are few of the director's quirks - those weird corpuscular closeups are gone! - there is still evidence of an excellent craftsmen. The fight scenes themselves surpass anything that's been done in boxing or sports movies, and the weird behind-the-scene world of the professional wrestler is captured in its most sympathetic and frightening lights. If Aronovsky relies a little too heavily on one shot of Rourke's back as he walks around (it seems Van Sant isn't the only American director who has been studying his Bela Tarr), he more than makes up for it in the staging of the fights, bars, and landscape of suburban New Jersey. The only real hiccup comes at the end, when the dramatic and brilliant final scene is nearly destroyed by the Bruce Springsteen tie-in song that plays over the credits.

But the film, as you might have heard, belongs to Rourke, who takes the washed-up Rocky character out of near-caricature and brings it to the level of great drama. Sean and I may be the only people who didn't realize Rourke needed a comeback, having enjoyed his work Animal Factory (Sean), Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (me) and Masked and Anonymous (both), but it's good to see him get his due. I always thought Rourke had an oddly grotesque face even back in his leading man days, but it's likely you won't get this guy's mug out of your mind for quite some time.

The time spent with Randy is detailed and deliberate, and even while doing something as basic as taking my shoes off two hours after the movie, I had a weird shudder and a thought of a faded and washed-up wrestler in the locker room, where the act of taking off one's shoes is a trial and laden with meaning. It took me a second to realize it was the movie still working on me, and just how fully realized a character Randy was. So hats off to Aronofsky, Rourke and Tomei for creating two new classic film characters. Even if they weren't real.



I couldn't help but think of Barton Fink's struggle with his first Hollywood screenplay to bring art into a Wallace Beery wrestling picture leading up to watching The Wrestler. Perhaps Robert Siegel, former head-writer for The Onion, was inspired by Barton's plight and decided to make this his first screenplay? To prove that "some fruity movie about suffering" and a wrestling picture can co-exist -- to realize what Barton Fink's movie would be?

Darren Aronofsky: "Well I think the whole line between what’s real and fake became a big theme when Rob and I were talking about it early on, because there’s this whole idea of “Where’s the real world—is it in the ring or out of the ring?” That was a main reason why Rob fought to keep the stripper in the film. I was open to changing it, because an independent film with a stripper… I was nervous about it. The more we thought about it, the more we realized the connections between the stripper and the wrestler were really significant. They both have fake stage names, they both put on costumes, they both charm an audience and create a fantasy for the audience, and they both use their body as their art, so time is their biggest enemy."

As Padraic said, these two characters of The Wrestler and The Stripper are brought so fully to life by Rourke and Tomei that it transcends the rote trappings of the aging, down-but-not-out ex-sports legend genre. But credit to Aronofsky and Siegel who aim more for Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront territory than another rehashing of Rocky's (no offense to Rocky, a fine picture, but those notes have been played to death) themes. While Stallone's Rocky could really be a reflection of any blue collar boxer casualty (in the first one anyway), Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson is a top to bottom unique individual. As well, the film strikes a gold mine with the scenes world of professional wrestling that is so rich with captivating material that it feels like it's been lying in wait for decades waiting for someone to discover it with a story as perfect as The Ram's.

There's a certain Hollywood subtext I couldn't shake that is certainly heightened with Rourke's well-known personal back story -- but also the general way Hollywood treats its actors, especially the female ones. Marissa Tomei is at that tough age where Hollywood basically stops producing movie's for them. People want to see pretty young things dealing with featherweight issues that the almighty 18-35 demographic can relate to. So once you hit forty you can plan on getting a nice place in New York and hope to land some good gigs on Broadway with maybe the occasional guest spot on a Law & Order. Tomei is lucky she can actually act or else she'd probably be resigned as an answer to a pop-culture trivia question like Sandra Bullock or Alicia Silverstone. Tomei's character is well-aware of this and working on back-up plans as she dances her last few nights at a Jersey strip club. And for Rourke, how is The Ram wrestling at the local rec center different from Rourke showing up in Another 9 1/2 Weeks? But like The Ram, Rourke's been giving great performances no matter what movie he's been in since the first 9 1/2 Weeks -- most recently for me, his amazing Marv in Sin City. But rather than have all this personal baggage distract from the story at hand it adds layers and makes for an even stronger statement and testament to endurance.

While I'll agree with you, Paddy, about Evan Rachel Wood being a bit of a week link in this, I couldn't help but be affected by his relationship with his daughter. I'll admit though that this probably has to do more with my own daddy issues more than the strength of the sub-plot but I did appreciate the scene when they finally do re-connect, if only for that moment, amidst the decaying surroundings of the Jersey boardwalk -- a perfect metaphor for their relationship. It is a shame though that Wood Acts! throughout her scenes while everyone else is simply reacting.

Another inspired scene I'd like to mention is the first deli-counter scene. In Rourke's attempt to retire from the ring and work a steady paying job he agrees to work the deli counter at the grocery store (managed by a surprisingly effective Todd Barry in his first substantial role I've seen him in), but he's clearly dreading having to deal with the customers. As Rourke begins his shift he's looking in the mirror, putting on a ridiculous plastic bag over his long Randy "The Ram" hair and as he makes his way to the deli we follow him as we would if he were about to begin a match. He pauses before parting the plastic curtain separating the station from the "backstage" and Aronofsky goes so far as to add in the sound of an eager wrestling audience applauding as he enters. We first encounter the worst supermarket patron, the old lady who doesn't know what she wants, and we think The Ram is going to be down for the count. But The Ram doesn't even take a knee, he slowly starts to get the hang of things and even gets a rapport with the customers going, and by the end of the day he's completely conquered the deli counter and I was cheering him on like he was taking down Andre The Giant.

The attention to detail in scenes like these are simply triumphant. As great as Rourke's and Tomei's performances are I came away with equal if not greater amazement at Aronofsky's eye. The lived-in state of everything we see is not only Aronofsky brilliantly using everything his locations have to offer but the places he creates are so perfectly put together as well -- from Rourke's taped together jacket to his arrested development trailer home with the nudie mag photo taped to the wall of his bathroom and the hilarious yet spot-on 80's soundtrack.

And as you mentioned, Paddy, the wrestling matches capture an intensity and brutality rarely captured as effectively. It's not the glorified, cinematic battles of Raging Bull or any of the other slow-mo happy films. These are clear-eyed, close-ups on a lifestyle that has very little glory to it. It's a sport that exists solely for the fans and the appreciation they can lovingly return to its athletes. And for The Ram, that appreciation, when a fan can literally give you an (fake) arm or a leg (to beat the other guy with), it's worth everything because sometimes it is better than nothing.

Unlike Mickey Rourke's strong performances in a small role in Sin City or The Pledge, his Randy "The Ram" is going to win him those real fans as this truly is a transformative performance, the kind of jaw-droppers that he was giving 20 years ago. So in a way, it really is a comeback. For Robert Siegel it's a damn strong introduction. And for Tomei and Aronofsky it's simply a reminder that if you give them the right material you'll see some of the best talent working today.



Since we agreed on so much, I’ll just follow-up on my criticism of the father-daughter relationship. I’m not sure if I should be surprised you liked it or not. On the one hand, the Randy/Stephanie stuff comes off as the kind of sentimental stuff people write when they don’t really know anything about the subject. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Robert Siegel knows as much about absentee fathers as Paul Haggis knows about race relations: that it’s an important subject and something they’ve heard or seen other people talk about.

On the other hand, this is the stuff that critics like Ebert eat up, and you generally don’t seem too skeptical about movies that try to say something important, even if it is in completely reductive and stereotypical terms. But the part with Wood just is false, and throughout the entire boardwalk scene I was looking around the theater, about to exclaim “oh, come on.It took Rourke and Tomei shooting the shit in the bar to get things back on track or I might have left. To use an apt phrase I recently heard: the Wood scenes were like someone taking a shit in my birthday cake.

It’s a fine movie with some outstanding performances, but I think there is some truth in one of the lone dissenting reviews. I don’t take the argument quite as far as Turan, but I find more truth here than in the breathless praise found elsewhere. Rourke for sure deserves it, but the movie itself suffers from some very serious and very contrived emotional manipulations; stuff I hardly notice when portrayed by Rourke and Tomei, but become stunningly obvious when Wood shows up.


Sean said...

More like, "Since we agreed on so much let me turn 5% of the movie into 95% of the movie". To be clear, The Wrestler has little to say or do with absentee fathers and Evan Rachel Wood is in the movie for maybe all of ten minutes. Randy's relationship with his daughter is not in the movie to start a dialog about an important issue a la Crash. It's a small but important plot point used as a catalyst for The Ram's narrative arc. It's not shoehorned into the movie in order to win over Roger Ebert. And whether or not Siegel has any first hand experience with absentee fathers is utterly irrelevant. I don't think he's ever wrestled professionally either. And as someone who does have first hand experience with this subject, I can attest that the material is written honestly and respectfully. While Wood’s performance brings the material down in these two five minute scenes – I’m able to look past 10 minutes of shrill acting. I think you may have gotten yourself a bit worked up there and lost sight of the rest of the movie.

As great as Rourke is, I do not think this movie would have been nearly as good in the hands of someone other than Aronofsky, which Rourke admitted in his Golden Globes speech. His performance is due in large part to Aronofsky dragging it out of him. While the movie can be a bit conventional in how it goes about its business, I don't think that's a problem. The movie is bare boned and completely lacking in any sort of subversiveness or modern cynicism. It's a throw-back to the simple 70's asthetic that relies on a great director and great performances to see it through. Films that were unashamed in their macho sentimentality. I'm not saying that it's a perfect film by any means but I think it's more than just a couple of great performances and one sub-par sub-plot.

Padraic said...

Not sure I get the first sentence - I specifically said I was going to focus on the minority of the movie we disagreed on.

I'm not sure if it was pure filler or award bait, but the lost daughter did nothing to advance the Ram's story. Tomei's character would be problematic too if it weren't for how well she sold it.

Rourke may have needed Aronovsky to play the heavy - and get him to the set every day - but it's hard to imagine someone with his life story needed director's notes for that role.

As for the comment about whether Siegel wrestled, you can't be serious. For example, I could care less if Scorcese ever boxed, but I highly doubt his movies would be what they were if he hadn't actually grown up Catholic in New York.

The former is just the symbolic device, the latter is the important stuff. You can't possibly think they are the same thing.