Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood
“20 Years Later,” indicates the title across the bottom of the screen in the opening shot of “The Wrestler.” Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is sitting in an empty locker room with his head down and his back to the camera. A promoter enters the frame and hands him a few measly bucks. This first scene says it all.
Set in the bowels of New Jersey, the film documents a washed up professional wrestler’s struggle to eke out a living as he continues to compete in the independent circuit. Gone are the glory days of his youth, when he headlined sold out stadium shows. “The Ram” now supports himself by working at the deli of a supermarket. But that’s not the worst of it - his battered body is falling apart after years of wear and tear, and no one besides an aging stripper gives a damn about him (but that’s just because he’s the only customer who still buys lap dances from her). It’s been a tough life and he has the scars to prove it, both physical and emotional.
“The Wrestler” is the devastating portrait of a man resigned to mediocrity after his fame and success eludes him, and there’s no one who fits that description better than Mickey Rourke. He was born for the part and Darren Aronofsky’s decision to cast him was a stroke of genius.
Rourke was one of the most promising young actors of the 1980s, but his career quickly fell from grace when he built a reputation of being difficult to work with and was subsequently exiled from Hollywood. He has since expressed regret about the way he behaved himself and vowed to make a comeback. This is it. And it’s not just the familiar material that accounts for his dazzling performance. Rourke is (and always has been) very talented at expressing heartfelt emotion behind a hardened physique. In this movie, the hurt and humiliation seems etched deep into the lines of his face.
If it sounds like a one-man-show, that’s because it is. The film is fascinating in its depiction of the contradictions and oddities of the bizarre wrestling sub-culture - which appears simultaneously masculine and effeminate, artificial and real - but it’s mostly all about Mickey. The pacing lags whenever it takes its focus even slightly off the titular character to develop the supporting female roles, played by Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. Their petty problems are an annoying distraction from the much more interesting principal subject. It doesn’t help that they aren’t given the pick of the litter in terms of lines. The dialogue in general is often clunky, with lots of unnecessary chatter and unnatural pop culture references. The spotty script pins down “The Wrestler,” which unfortunately settles for being a good film with occasional moments of greatness.