Art, Meet Life

the wrestler 1 Art, Meet LifeThe Wrestler
Running time 109 minutes
Written by Robert D. Siegel
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

Talk about comebacks. In The Wrestler, a post-Rocky look at a junked-out, has-been fighter who won’t leave the ring even though he’s long past his prime, Mickey Rourke rises from the dead to resuscitate not only his acting career but his personal self-respect as well. In interviews at film festivals in Toronto and Venice (where it won the top prize), the battered, bloated and facially disfigured former boxer who made his first impact as a method actor in 1982’s Diner and 1983’s Rumble Fish before hitting the road to ruin talked about how The Wrestler has saved him from a self-destructive Hell’s Angels lifestyle of violence, arrogance and cynicism that rendered him unemployable. Well, it’s good to see an obviously gifted man once written off as a freak punch his way through a meaty role with the hunger of a starving lumberjack tearing into raw steak. Now he attends press dinners with pet Chihuahas tucked under his arm, feeding them from his plate.

Unlike James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando—pretty boys who declared war on their good looks with disastrous results—Mr. Rourke has lived to prove there’s dough to be earned with those dewlaps. In The Wrestler, he continues to beef up his body with steroids and suntans, making no effort to conceal the decay. With his long, dyed-blond locks and ravaged face, he looks like a creepy cross between a crazy Gorgeous George and Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Darren Aronofsky, an arty, self-conscious director I have never cared for, does his best work to date, extracting from his star the edge, pain and hetero-depravity within himself, and Mr. Rourke, realizing he’s got nothing to lose, wisely trusts the boss’ instincts. It’s like he knows this is his last chance, so he’d better show the scars and all. From start to finish, you are almost unable to believe this is acting. Like Jack Palance in Requiem for a Heavyweight, the man you’re watching not only has the role of a lifetime; he seems to be living it, too. The result is the most brutally honest performance of the year.

He plays Randy “the Ram” Robinson, a washed-up pugilist who was once a draw on the fight circuit. But that was 20 years ago. Now he’s lucky to eke out a living stacking shelves in a New Jersey supermarket warehouse, fighting anybody in local gyms who will take him on for extra money, and trying not to get killed before the bell. He’s partially deaf and cauliflower-eared, with a face like a Halloween mask and the kind of long, straw-yellow hair in a bun you see on aging waitresses and church organists; even his tattoos are faded. Living alone in a seedy trailer, piercing his skin with staple guns, smashing his head with metal garbage cans and folding chairs, he lives in a bleak world devoid of all color except for his green spangled tights, and he’s totally alone in it. His estranged lesbian daughter (the exceptional ingénue Evan Rachel Wood) makes an occasional appearance, as does a compassionate sometime girlfriend (another terrific performance by Marisa Tomei), but she’s an aging stripper with a child to raise in Trenton, N.J., and no time for romance. How sad is that? After recovering from a heart attack brought on by years of self-abuse, he makes a touching attempt to retire, but loneliness and social ineptitude force him back into the arena for the respect and applause that are missing from his empty life. Subjecting his body to epic slammings and energy-enhancing drugs, he figures whatever happens, it’s got to be better than the misery and rejection he gets in the outside world. It’s a plot so familiar it borders on cliché, and elements of everything from Champion to Million Dollar Baby are inescapable. But there’s no denying Aronofsky’s commitment (gone are all traces of arty self-indulgence that have been his trademarks in junk like The Fountain); the tough script by Robert D. Siegel, which never begs pity for its downbeat characters; and especially Mickey Rourke’s raw, naked passion, which makes his galvanizing performance a real awards contender, and provides a jump-start for a career with a dead transmission.

rreed@observer.com