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Entries in Wrestler/The [2008] (1)

Thursday
Jan152009

The Wrestler, 2008

Oscar-Mired Wieners, Part One

It's a sad state of affairs when the sixth film in a boxing franchise is superior to an alleged tour de force original film about wrestling. But it's gotta be said: Rocky Balboa knocks the shit out of The Wrestler, the new Darren Aronofsky film starring Mickey Rourke that has garnered a lot of Oscar buzz (and recently netted a Golden Globe for its star)...

The Wrestler starts out interestingly enough, walking the audience through the life of professional bruiser Randy "The Ram" Robinson. He's got a hearing aid and a bad case of plastic surgery, and spends two days a week competing in the equivalent of off-off-off-Broadway matches (the other five days are devoted to clerking in a local grocery store). These competitions range from standard bounce-off-the-ropes fights to low-rent cage matches, where the object is to apparently make running stabs at the opponent using several sharp and illegal weapons without blacking out (this constitutes not only a brutal scene, but the only one of true invention in The Wrestler: Aronofsky teases us by beginning with the end of the fight, where The Ram is being treated for several gaping wounds and then flashing back to show--in full Passion of the Christ mode--how he got them; the audience's sighs of relief turn to gasps of horror in one very slick turn). We also see The Ram encouraging young fighters and showing up to micro-conventions to sign autographs for a handful of eager fans. The near-documentary quality of the film's first third promises a gripping look at this failed character...

Unfortunately, Aronofsky went gold-statue fishin' with a tackle box full of Oscar bait, which means The Ram has to have a series of tearful encounters with people as damaged as himself; these generic props are stipper-with-a-heart-of-gold Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) and Ram's daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). The Ram wants to go out with Cassidy, but she has a kid and is afraid of getting hurt and...you can fill in the rest with a 99.9% chance of accuracy. Stephanie, who hasn't seen her father in years, is a college student majoring in drama (this is my theory, based on the fact that she has about three minutes of screen time where she's not crying or screaming). These characters derail The Wrestler because they are not given anything to do beyond the demands of the film's trailer. If you are surprised by any of the developments in their storylines, I congratulate you on being a fan of Quantum of Solace. Tomei and Wood are wonderful performers, but there is almost a misogynistic bent to their roles: they are the ingrates, the whores who are unable to prop up our hero in his darkest hour--until it's too late. Spare me...

Back to The Ram. He is offered a re-match against the foe whom he faced in his last big fight, twenty years ago. After suffering a heart attack, he gives up on the match; then he decides to fight after all. He quits his job at the grocery store (in a scene that is supposed to be empowering, but which really makes him look like a dumb, bitter asshole), and, against doctor's orders, enters the ring. By the time the credits rolled, I really hoped that something awful would happen to Randy "The Ram" Robinson. It wasn't just that the movie had let me down, but Rourke's portrayal was so grating, so selfish, that I just couldn't stand to look at him anymore (it's the same reason I couldn't watch any film starring Catherine Keener for about eight years); I suppose this is a testament to Rourke's ability to bring any poorly written character study to life and make it believable, but I want to be able to cheer for the person I'm supposed to like, not hope they die penniless and alone...

Which brings me--at last--back to Rocky Balboa, the perfect sequel. One can easily (and happily) discount the second through fifth installments of the franchise and simply view Rocky and Rocky Balboa as two movies made thirty years apart. Sylvester Stallone imbued in Rocky a desperation to succeed that felt real, and set him in a rough Philly neighborhood that served to keep him down. In Balboa, he's back in that neighborhood after years of fights and personal loss; we know that he retired because of health reasons and opened a restaurant to keep busy and happy; he's estranged from his son, who struggles to make it in the business world and prove that he's more than a famous last name. The movie is filled with actual characters who have arcs and sub-plots of their own. When Rocky enters the ring against an opponent forty years his junior at the end of the film, we know that he's railing against depression and the notion that with age comes softness; in The Wrestler, The Ram comes off as a conceited dumb-ass who can't follow directions...

The key difference between the films--aside from the likability of the main characters--is that The Wrestler provides zero context for its hero's current condition. The Ram was once a major wrestler, with action figures, video games, endorsements, marquee matches. He had to have been a millionaire; twenty years on, he lives in a trailer. Did he gamble away his money? Snort it away? What happened to his family life, what caused the rift with Stephanie? On top of that, are the matches in which he competes legal? Is he part of some underground wrestling network that secretly converts school gyms into Fight Clubs on Saturdays? The movie is so full of questions that it needs an hour's worth of flashbacks just to help me give a shit. It's like watching a Donald Trump biopic in which he's living under the Brooklyn Bridge in the year 2029, hoping against hope to get into a small-business expo--except that we're only given an opening-credits montage showing him building a multi-billion dollar real estate empire; what happened to all the money?

I have no problem with movies like this being made, because they're easily forgettable and tend to remind me of better movies--and why I love them. My beef comes from the hype and praise that boost ticket sales and convince people that they should be moved by drivel that's not good enough for the Hallmark Channel. It's like being stuck in Aronofsky's far superior Requiem for a Dream in which everyone in the wold seems to be dangerously high...