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NYFF 2008: “The Wrestler.”

Mickey Rourke is one magnificent wreck. "The Wrestler" holds off from giving you the full-frontal of his face for a while, as if he were the monster in a low-budget horror flick. When it does finally creep around, you see misplaced tautness, semi-mobile features, starlet lips, an overall impression of carved putty. One of the film's visual jokes is that Rourke's character, faded pro wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is a shambling but still formidable hunk of meat, but he's aging in the style of a South Beach matron. It's not just the too often overhauled mug -- we follow as he gets the roots of his long, brittle hair (which he often keeps in a bun) bleached to cover the grey, as he bronzes himself against the colorless New Jersey winter in a tanning bed, as he puts on a pair of prim wire-frame glasses in order to read....

10082008_thewrestler.jpgMickey Rourke is one magnificent wreck. “The Wrestler” holds off from giving you the full-frontal of his face for a while, as if he were the monster in a low-budget horror flick. When it does finally creep around, you see misplaced tautness, semi-mobile features, starlet lips, an overall impression of carved putty. One of the film’s visual jokes is that Rourke’s character, faded pro wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson, is a shambling but still formidable hunk of meat, but he’s aging in the style of a South Beach matron. It’s not just the too often overhauled mug — we follow as he gets the roots of his long, brittle hair (which he often keeps in a bun) bleached to cover the grey, as he bronzes himself against the colorless New Jersey winter in a tanning bed, as he puts on a pair of prim wire-frame glasses in order to read. Then he buys several hundred bucks worth of steroids and growth hormones from an amiable locker room dealer who he tells, with a wrenching capacity for denial, about his plans to “get big and strong.” Randy has only a rocky downhill slope ahead of him, but no one would ever tell him that — the guy’s got nothing but his past, a few lingering die-hard fans, and a friendship with a similarly past-her-prime stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), the only one to whom he can tell his only half-believed tales about how he’ll clamber back to the big leagues.

It’s a fantastic performance from Rourke, even as it’s all tangled up with everything we know about his own life and career. But it’s an even better performance from director Darren Aronofsky, who turns from “The Fountain,” a film I’d be the first to defend, but that feels like it was created in the isolation of the space bubble in which Future Hugh Jackman spent so much time meditating, to something unexpectedly funny, ready and rough and tumble that runs at a dozen clichés and tosses them over the ropes. Exotic dancer with a secret kid and a heart of gold? Estranged, embittered offspring? Down-on-his-luck athlete/entertainer with one last shot at grander things? Check, check and check, and “The Wrestler” reinvents these characters from scratch. Cassidy, whose name in the light of day is the more mundane Pam, turns out to be the perfect parallel to Randy, two decades past the average age for her own profession, and keeping him, her lone regular, at arm’s length out of habit and because she’s worried he’ll been turned off by the ordinariness of her life once she breaks character. Evan Rachel Wood is Stephanie, Randy’s grown-up, gothy daughter, who has plenty of justifications for wanting him out of her life, but who hasn’t quite sealed off the chinks in her armor.

And there’s Randy himself, plodding from his rented singlewide to his grocery store job to whatever community center or American Legion hall is host to that weekend’s bottom-tier wrestling event, the camera often bobbing a few feet behind his heavy shoulders in its semi-naturalistic way as he continues along in a lifestyle that’s killing him. It’s not that Randy doesn’t understand that his time has passed — he’s just refused to contemplate a life that doesn’t revolve around wrestling, though the places at which he does it keep getting smaller and shabbier, and fewer and fewer people show up. He’s still a big deal among the aspiring wrestling community, which “The Wrestler” treats with greatest affection — massive men in spandex, tattoos and piercings slapping each other on the back backstage, discussing in detail how to put on the best show (“Don’t work his head, man, everybody does that!”), applauding performances and commiserating over injuries. They’re all crowd-pleasers, heroic faces and glowering heels hamming it up, grappling, taking stage punches, throwing themselves onto the mat and leaping from the top ropes in mock battles of good and evil. And Randy’s willingness to keep suffering for his audience — beyond the wear and tear of the years, in one early match he deliberately cuts himself for dramatic effect, and in a later, more sadistic one, takes on an opponent who makes use of a staple gun, barbed wire and a broken sheet of glass — starts to seem like something noble. “The Wrestler”‘s greatest trick is that it’s not the story of redemption you thought it was at all, but rather one of a man embracing the lot he’s chosen, and insisting on performing his signature finishing move. It’s called the Ram Jam, and it, like this film, is something to see.

“The Wrestler” will open on December 19th. For more coverage of the New York Film Festival, click here.

[Photo: "The Wrestler," Fox Searchlight, 2008]

+ “The Wrestler” (NYFF)
+ “The Wrestler” (Fox Searchlight)

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