by Dan Schneider

The Wrestler is the fourth film made by director Darren Aronofsky, and the third that I've seen. His first film, Pi, had an interesting first half, then devolved into a Jewish conspiracy piece of nonsense. His next film, Requiem For A Dream, was an MTV monstrosity of music and non-characterization that was topped off by one of the silliest scenes in modern film history. His third film, which I've not seen, was a sci-fi film called The Fountain. So, with The Wrestler, Aronofsky finally has come to grips with reality. And it results in a brilliant film that melds good screenwriting with realism with a great acting performance by Mickey Rourke. In fact, with just about any other actor but Rourke, the film would have been merely solid--it's Rourke's performance which lifts the film just above the threshold for greatness.

No, the film is not going to go down in history, but that does not mean it's not great. And, no, I am not biased toward the film because I have been a fan of pro wrestling for a long time. But, what a documentary like Beyond The Mat did for the non-fiction side of the sport, this film does for the fictional side. Some critics have called it a latter day Rocky, but this film is about a down & outer rather than an up & comer. Besides, this film is much better, and Sylvester Stallone is not in an acting league with Mickey Rourke. The film follows the life of Randy Ramzinsky, aka Randy 'The Ram' Robinson, a headlining wrestler back in the 1980s who now is reduced to working house shows at small arenas. I recall, back in the 1970s, before the modern WWE-led era of pro wrestling dawned, going to house shows at a high school I would later attend. The film gets that milieu down perfectly. From the bouts to the wrestlers to the many varieties of fans, to the lingo, to the pathos of after-match autograph signings, the filmmaker has done his homework.

The film's ending is one of the many deviations the film takes away from typical Hollywood Lowest Common Denominator tropes, and this all flows from a very good script written by Robert D. Siegel. The cinematography, by Maryse Alberti, is adequate, and the editing solid, but it is the characterization that makes this film take off and allows both Rourke and Tomei (as aging stripper and object of Rourke's affections, Pam) to give the best performances of their careers.

The DVD, put out by Twentieth Century Fox, is a solid one. It lacks an audio commentary, though, and this is a film that begs for a few: one by Aronofsky and Rourke, as well as one by a wrestling historian; to give insights into the real lives of old time wrestlers. The 109 minute film is shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. As for extras? There is a long, but good, documentary on the film's making, called Within The Ring, and a rather lame music video by Bruce Springsteen, who contributed a song to the film. The rest of the score was done Clint Mansell, and it's a good job, especially in using old 1980s hair band music. It starts with a great opening montage of old wrestling magazine covers and posters that chart the rise and fall of The Ram's career in the squared circle.

While the film does not delve into cosmic profundities, it is a far deeper film than seen at first blush. Both Randy and Pam, for example, are people who use their bodies as a means of financial support. And while Pam seems to be the more well adjusted character, hers is not a life filled with satisfaction. Midway through the film there is a telling scene where the fortysomething stripper is repeatedly turned down by customers she solicits for a private lap dance. By contrast, for all his failures in real life, Randy can still garner adulation from hundreds of people who will pay to see him. By film's end, he seems to have accepted his place in the cosmos, as a piece of meat, but a beloved piece of meat; and given his failures as a man, father, and potential lover, that's enough for him. Pam, on the other hand, is either tougher, or more deluded. She is not seen waiting for Randy, as she would in a typical Hollywood schlockbuster (see the end of Rocky). She still dreams even though, as the film shows, she's not even a beloved piece of meat...nor a particularly attractive one.

Much has been made of the film's role in resuscitating the acting career of Mickey Rourke, and it's true that he shares much in common with The Ram, but the sign of a good--nay, great--acting performance is that, after a few minutes, you forget that the actor is acting. Mickey Rourke is nowhere to be found; it is all Randy Ramzinsky, for better or worse. Director Aronofsky deserves credit for finally learning from prior failures, and crafting a film based upon good characterization and writing. Whether this film proves to be a milestone for his career, or just an anomaly, remains to be seen, but either way, the film, as a whole, is a great thing to experience (and, because of its characterization, the viewer does experience, not merely watch, it). It is not an updated Rocky, but more akin to an updated Requiem For A Heavyweight.

Fortunately, this is the rare film that most critics got right, perhaps because it is so straightforward, in many ways, that it cannot be really misinterpreted too greatly. Or perhaps because, despite his profession, The Ram's dilemma is one almost all people face--limited options due to age and the realization one lacks the skills and/or time needed to accomplish the things one really wants to accomplish. Of course, there are always exceptions, and perhaps the silliest one is from that known contrarian and cinematic dolt, Armond White. In his review of the film, not only does he get the nickname of the main character wrong (he calls him Ram Jam, when the nickname is The Ram, and his signature move is the Ram Jam), but he tosses off these incomprehensible gems:

Hype for Mickey Rouke (sic) in The Wrestler is an embarrassment; the excellent actor has had greater roles and given more interesting performances (his tabloid exploits notwithstanding). As a middle-aged, small-time wrestler living in a New Jersey trailer, Rourke's Randy "Ram Jam" Robinson tells his estranged daughter, "Now I'm an old, broken-down piece of meat, and I'm alone and I deserve to be alone. I just don't want you to hate me." Jason Statham voiced more eloquent regret in Death Race; Ram Jam just wants pity.

Having seen most of Rourke's film work from the 1980s, there is nothing that compares in breadth, depth, nor complexity, to this role, and certainly not anything from a C actor in a D film (the sort of silly equation White ruthlessly tosses about at the drop of a pin). Here's another:

Everything he does is an act of masochistic penance—very strange in an anti-spiritual movie. When his stripper girlfriend Cassidy (a superbly buck-naked Marisa Tomei) recommends he watch The Passion of the Christ, it's another lead-pipe irony. Ram Jam responds, "Tuff, dude," while Cassidy goes through her own Stations of the Stripper's Pole. Sanctimony like this appeals primarily to cynics who scoff at Mel Gibson's sincerity yet cheer Aronofsky's repulsive, violent nihilism. The message that life is hell is a pseudo-intellectual's version of professional wrestling bunkum.

First, Randy is serving no penance, but trying to survive. And, the scene that mentions Mel Gibson's gorefest is ironic, but certainly not because Gibson is sincere and Aronofsky nihilistic. In his earlier films there was nihilism, but one of the things that makes this film great is its realism. Aronofsky has grown up. White, still reliant on sticking his tongue out at the world, just for fun, has not. Elsewise, explain this:

Where was the Oscar talk for his ingenious, witty Bukowski characterization in Barfly, his memorably sly lawyer in The Rainmaker or his true career comeback as the comic-book brute in Sin City?

Simple, Armond. Barfly was a dreadful bore of a film that wasted Rourke's talent in caricature, The Rainmaker was generic Hollywood crap that Francis Ford Coppola did to finance his wine business (after all, it was based on a John Grisham bestseller), and Sin City was….well, let me quote the best take on that piece of garbage:

Yet, to even state this film has a story accepts the claim that it has a plot, or a purpose, in its astoundingly bad screenplay, besides upping sales of action figures for geeky wannabe he-men.

Fortunately, The Wrestler is the vehicle for Rourke to shine. It's a film that claws and earns its way to greatness. Perhaps the worst thing is the film is the nearly unreadable font of the opening credits, but after that, it's all excelsior. It's small moments remind me of The Jimmy Show, a terrific, and similarly unsentimental, 2001 film that got as much indifference as this film got hype. Both films are unafraid to show life's unpretty side, but neither film buys into the false heroics of Hollywood endings, nor the false travails of more melodramatic 'indy' films. It also piques one to envision what a truly adult film by the hit and miss director Kevin Smith would be like, since his films are all set in New Jersey, with blue collar folk, as well.

Randy 'The Ram' Ramzinsky is what his daughter claims, a fuck-up, a total fuck-up, but he realizes it. So many of the characters in films, and people in real life, delude themselves into thinking they are things they are not. It is this sort of strength that makes the film an 'adult' film, not Tomei's nudity (watch the scene where Randy heads down from the supermarket bathroom to enter the deli box, pauses, with the blare of a pro wrestling entrance theme playing, breathes, then enters to the silence of mundane work). More of this is needed. Perhaps Darren Aronofsky, if he's learned the lessons of this film, can pick up the gauntlet that John Cassavetes tossed down a few decades ago which remains on American cinema's floor. If not, at least here's hoping he does not return to his earlier ways. If, instead of navel gazing masturbatory philosophy, a dose of blue collar realism (and no sport is more blue collar than pro wrestling) can work wonders for an artist like Aronofsky, imagine what it can do for the blue collars that watch it. Go ahead, try it, for a change!

©2010 Dan Schneider