Monday, December 22, 2008

Mickey Rourke wrestles his past

Thanks to the Melbourne Film festival and Hopscotch Films we attended a preview screening of The Wrestler in Melbourne. It opens nationally in Australia on 15 January 2009.

‘Bout The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky’s latest film takes us into a world where suspending disbelief is the core element. Wrestling culture, though superficially like boxing, is more like the circus. A strange mixture of comedy, farce and sometimes tragedy. The Wrestler is all of these and more. Portrayed as a macho world, it has always had plenty of female fans. Just as Mickey Rourke had in his younger days and will doubtless have again with the release of this touching story.

The director has made this Rourke’s film. He is in virtually every scene. The camera explores his body in intimate detail. If his scars and breaks seem too real, perhaps many of them are a legacy of Mickey’s pro boxing career in the early 1990s during a movie hiatus. It isn’t quite type-casting but becomes clear why Aronofsky was so keen to get him for this part.

He isn’t the early sex symbol of 9½ Weeks or the brutal Marv of Sin City. For ageing Randy "The Ram" Robinson is more gentleman than stud despite the expectations of some of his female admirers. There is no doubt that Rouke’s reputation as a bad boy and loose cannon on the set adds a special dimension to his performance. We sense from the beginning that there will be explosions.

If you’re expecting a wrestling version of Rocky, forget it. This is not about underdogs or champions. Randy is fighting his own demons more than his opponents in the ring. Too old and too sick to continue his chosen career, he is just trying to maintain some sense of personal and social identity. As an unskilled worker, he struggles to find other employment.

Through his relationship with Pam, a bar dancer aka Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), he makes one more attempt to re-establish contact with his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Somehow we know that he promises her too much and that his self-destructive side will see him crashing his own skull into a turnbuckle or two.

The fight scenes are spectacular but gruesome. Knowing that the wrestling is scripted and that we are watching actors doesn’t minimise their impact. Shades of the real thing! For all the pretence, the crowd and the movie audience must have blood and there is plenty of it.

It’s a world of good guys and bad guys. The plot centres on a rematch with his nemesis from the eighties, The Ayotollah, who waves an Iraqi flag as he enters the ring. Young Cassius Clay taunting Sonny Liston and Ali rumbling in the jungle with George Foreman would have loved the showmanship and histrionics.

Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay milks the visual elements. Two scenes stand out:

Washed up and retired heroes of times passed sit at tables in an American Legion hall. They are selling memorabilia, signing autographs and posing for photographs with fans and their children. With their wounds barely hidden, they look more like civil war veterans.

The Ram walks through corridors and down the stairs of a supermarket on his way to serve at the deli counter. His bleached shoulder length locks are covered by a hairnet. His shame badge sports his real name ‘Robin’. Aronofsky lays the stadium imagery on thick. We laugh or cry or do both.

The director clearly established strong rapport with his female leads. Marisa Tomei doesn’t miss a beat as her character’s attempts to build a solid life for herself and her son are complicated by Randy’s attentions. Evan Rachel Wood’s brooding performance as his estranged daughter symbolises the Ram’s wasted years and wasted opportunities.

Their dysfunctional relationship is juxtaposed with his affection for and genuine interactions with the children of his trailer park. They clearly admire and respect this old warrior.

The Wrestler will appeal across generations. This is a movie for baby boomers who grew up on a weekly diet of world championship wrestling as their virtual reality television. It is also tailor-made for Gen X who loved Fight Club and Gen Y who love disgraced celebrities on the comeback trail. The advertising poster proclaims, “Witness the Resurrection of Mickey Rourke”. A clever marketing ploy but the film stands up without this inevitable, forced metaphor. Mickey was neither washed up or dead as his filmography clearly shows. Not Lazarus, just a naughty boy!

It won the Golden Lion at the 2008 Venice Film Festival. The Wrestler is a certainty for academy award nominations. It’s straight out of Million Dollar Baby territory; the kind of stuff Planet Hollywood loves. It’s very sentimental and very good. Like Bruce Springsteen’s song “The Wrestler” which closes the film.