The Wrestler

legendary1 The Wrestler Patty Clarkson has earned a well-deserved status as the low-budget indie-prod It Girl by elevating humdrum movies above and beyond anything they might otherwise deserve, but even she can’t save Legendary. Talk about movies that cannot possibly live up to their titles.

This one was intended as a showcase for juggernaut John Cena, the pro-wrestling champion-turned-action-figure hero, self-made Muscle McGurk, chain-mail fashion model and sometime rap singer often referred to as “Dr. of Thuganomics.” Ms. Clarkson plays, of all things, his estranged and understandably distraught mother. As the matriarch of the Oklahoma Chetley family, she can’t get over the death of her husband, a college wrestling legend who was killed in a car crash for which Mr. Cena, as her oldest son, Mike, feels guilty. Mike, also a wrestling legend, survived the wreckage, but turned to booze, violence and cheap floozies, leaving home and breaking his mom’s heart. Ten years later, his 15-year-old kid brother, Cal (Devon Graye), a skinny geek who is nothing like the other Chetley men, heroically joins his high-school wrestling team with the hope that it will somehow reunite his miserable, mixed-up family. Like the doofus kid in Breaking Away, Cal prefers Italian opera to the gym, but he decides to devote himself to the sport, and, like Brandon De Wilde searching for troubled older brother Warren Beatty in John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down, hops on a bus to find him. His goal is to enlist Mike, whom he hero-worships, to be his trainer so he can compete in the 135-pound weight class. Mike is amused and confused by this aesthetic squirt who doesn’t have one chance in hell in the bone-crushing world of wrestling, but he reluctantly agrees to teach Cal things like offense, defense, speed, leverage. You know, stuff determined to prevent audiences from yawning but doomed to fail. While Mom paces and wrings her hands with worry, Mike shows the kid the ropes, but he won’t go to his matches because of the memories that still torture him whenever he sniffs a tube of Ben-Gay. Can Mike stay out of jail long enough to slay his personal demons and come home? Will Mom learn to overcome her pain, anger and loss? Will Cal beat the odds, grow biceps and beat up the school bullies who have been the bane of his existence? Will the courage and can-do sweetness of a good kid teach all of the Chetleys to resolve their differences and become a loving family again? Will the Cineplex run out of popcorn?

There’s not much tension or suspense waiting for the answers. It’s all been done before. Cal is the Billy Elliot of wrestling. John Cena is to serious acting what Lady Gaga is to serious music, making it easy for young Devon Graye to turn a sports-and-redemption movie into a coming-of-age flick, stealing every scene. A kid who would rather go fishing with a mysterious riverbank loafer (Danny Glover)–who turns out to have played an important role in his father’s past–Cal turns from a scrawny beanpole into a Men’s Health cover in ways I found hugely unconvincing. Weathering the testosterone overflow, Patricia Clarkson works her magic in an honest, homespun manner, eschewing self-indulgent furrowed-brow mother expressions and all traces of self-pity. But Mel Damski’s follow-the-dots direction and the flaccid screenplay by John Posey (a former Newsday sportswriter who also plays the wrestling coach) that resembles an after-school TV special conspire to turn her into wallpaper. Along the way, we are treated to take-home talismans to live by, like “The smell of the mat never leaves you” and “Losing is better than quitting.” Legendary is a soap opera with steroids.

rreed@observer.com

 

LEGENDARY
Running time 107 minutes
Written by John Posey
Directed by Mel Damski
Starring Patricia Clarkson, John Cena, Devon Graye, Danny Glover

2/4