Now, I have little-to-no interest in professional wrestling. (Ok, Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, and Rowdy Roddy aside, I did use to be cognizant of some of the second-tier characters and plotlines back in the day — the Four Horsemen, Nature Boy Ric Flair, etc. etc. And I did attend a WWF match in Atlanta back in the summer of ’95. But like about half of the crowd that night, I was there ironically.) Still, The Wrestler is a movie that works, I think, regardless of the immediate milieu involved. It could be a tale about anyone — wrestlers, writers, athletes, actors (not unlike Mickey Rourke) — who find themselves closer to an early death, or at best years of anonymity, loneliness, and toil, than they are to their halcyon days.
Speaking of the glory days, The Wrestler begins with an audio montage of Randy “the Ram” Robinson at his peak. This was, of course, the Eighties, when excess was in fashion, hair bands ruled the radio, and the Ram pummeled his nemesis, the Ayatollah (Ernest Mlller), in front of capacity crowds at Madison Square Garden. (Don’t worry, they get along fine outside the ring. In fact — are you sitting down? — this movie actually suggests that pro wrestling is, well, fake. Of if not “fake” per se — there’s quite a bit of real pain involved — then “predetermined.”)
Cut to 2008. Axl Rose has given way to Kurt Cobain, who gave way to Justin Timberlake. And, after twenty years of drugs and horribly violent beatings, Randy (nee Robin Ramzinski) has been reduced to plying his trade in high school gyms and VFW halls. His body is breaking down, his injuries — and bad habits and creditors and appetite for (self-)destruction — are catching up with him, and he’s been forced to work day shifts at a local supermarket to help pay the rent on his mobile home. And, even though his community of fellow wrestlers is far and away the friendliest bunch of jacked-up juicers you’ll ever meet — backstage, group hugs rather than ‘roid rage are the order of the day — there’s isn’t really any Adrian to soothe the days for Randy. Nor, unlike Gran Torino and The Visitor, are there any magical immigrants around the corner, soon to warm Randy’s aged heart and remind him of the bright side of life. (Ok, there is a stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), but she’s dealing with her own demons and tries to keep Randy at “customer’s” length, even tho’ she and he are kindred spirits of sorts — she writhes, and Randy bleeds, for our entertainment.)
Amid these long days at the supermarket, violent nights in the ring, and the occasional forlorn and empty convention appearance, two events occur to shake Randy out of this complacency. One is a proposed twenty-year anniversary rematch against the Ayatollah, who’s now selling cars in New Mexico but would game for a nostalgia bout. The other, more dire occurrence is a heart attack, which Randy suffers after a particularly brutal match (and I mean brutal.) The doctors say another tussle in the ring might well kill him, and so Randy tries to go straight, as it were (and to reconnect with his little girl (Evan Rachel Wood), for whom he was clearly an absentee father.) But Randy the Ram was never particularly good at playing the part of Robin Ramzinski, and things just tend to be more complicated and disappointing outside the ropes. Chairs, headbutts, and clotheslines Randy can handle, but life? Life tends to be painful through and through. And (unlike rolling around on broken glass and barbwire, it seems), life will cut you right to the bone.
The Wrestler was penned by a former editor-in-chief of The Onion, Robert Siegel, and at times an impish, mordant sense of humor peeks out the edges of the film. (See, for example, Randy’s boss at the deli (Todd Barry), or the scenes involving old-school Nintendo and fireman’s boots.) But, most of the time, the movie just ambles along amiably like its star — It feels honest, humble, low-key, naturalistic…and a million miles away from Aronofsky’s other, flashier films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain.) I wouldn’t cry foul if The Wrestler manages to pin down Oscars for Rourke and/or Tomei, and it’s too bad Aronofsky got locked out of Best Director contention this year — dabbling in the ‘rassling form has clearly been good for him. (I haven’t seen The Reader, but, frankly, the Stephen Daldry nod looks as suspect to me as your average WWE match. By even favorable accounts, that flick is literally and figuratively Holocaust porn.) In any case, The Wrestler is well-worth catching, and one hopes it lends itself to the type of career renaissance for Rourke et al that the Ram so desperately desired.