Mickey Rourke’s comeback triumph arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.
Believe the hype about Mickey Rourke. Offering a very good performance in a truly bad film, his heroic work in last year’s The Wrestler is still not enough to salvage the film from the sadistic, simplistic vision of director Darren Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel. If the film is worth seeing at all, it’s only to witness this once-supernova leading man blaze a trail back to the acclaim he deserved early in his troubled career.
Rourke plays Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a broken-down wrestling superstar fallen into obscurity twenty years after a history-making match. Reduced to performing in school gymnasiums, Randy nevertheless continues to be revered by small children, his fans from the old days, and especially his fellow athletes – until he suffers a steroid-induced heart attack. No longer able to wrestle, he diverts his energies to strengthening his relationships with the women in his life: Pam (Marisa Tomei), a middle aged, single mom/stripper; and Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter he abandoned years earlier. Through a series of misfortunes – partly of his own making - Randy finds himself alone again, compelled to reenter the ring for the archetypal last chance at glory.
Two scenes in particular give Rourke the chance to shine in his vulnerability and ruined strength: as he pleads with his doctor to call him “Randy” even as he receives a potentially fatal diagnosis, and later when he tries to shower in an undersized bathroom stall without getting his bandages wet. That one shot, to the film and Rourke’s credit, is a truly heartbreaking depiction of a basically decent guy in desperate need of a little self-control.
But ironically the nuance of Rourke’s performance stands in stark contrast to the merciless heavy-handedness of Siegel and Aronofsky. Like the rabid fans roaring and chanting with Randy’s every move, the film’s creators seem to take perverse pleasure in watching the Randy endure pain – not from the barbed wire and staple guns strewn about the wrestling ring, but rather from a gauntlet of rejection and disappointment relentlessly pummeled upon him. This string of pathos-inducing defeats provides fertile ground for Rourke the actor to prove that he’s still got it, but for the audience such an exhibition of brutality isn’t revelatory so much as it grows tedious and repulsive.
To Siegel’s credit, the film couldn’t provoke such an intense reaction if the character of Randy the Ram weren’t so endearing and so sympathetic. Still, the disjointed progression of the film’s narrative makes the story’s weaknesses difficult to overlook. Randy’s centerpiece monologue to his daughter, a genuinely touching piece of screenwriting, ultimately suffers from a complete lack of escalating tension: Randy and Stephanie are casually walking the Jersey Boardwalk one moment, then he’s suddenly baring his soul to her the next with no set-up in between. Other such structural flaws undermine the integrity of the film as a whole, particularly in the third act when Pam has a change of heart that’s too easy and too neat to come across with any credibility. The end result feels rushed, as if Siegel is so anxious to hit the big showcase moments that he steamrolls over the details. He wants the payoff without putting in the hard work.
It’s therefore no surprise that any attempts at symbolism or metaphor are patronizing and paper-thin, perhaps best evidenced by an early scene in which Pam compares Randy the Ram to Jesus Christ. Similarly, Randy can’t build relationships with the two women in his life, so he returns to the glory and camaraderie of the wrestling ring where he (presumably) dies of a heart attack. He dies of a broken heart, you see? Ugh. Making matters worse, Aronofsky’s choppy editing and awkward transitions only heighten the narrative disconnect. Subtlety has never been his strong suit, and unfortunately here he returns to the tawdry heavy-handedness that permeated 2000′s epically overrated Requiem For A Dream. Aronofsky’s fixation with employing shock value for its own sake is most apparent in a graphic tryst between Randy and a fetishist barfly, a scene that’s so clumsily handled it plays as film school amateurish.
For that matter, the exceedingly violent wrestling sequences are a paradox: while considerable screen time is devoted to depicting the physical and psychological toll that the sport inflicts upon its participants, Aronofsky still can’t stop himself from staging the actual matches as an adrenaline-heavy joyride. Far from making some kind of an artistic statement, the director plays it as safe as he can – disingenuously deriding the savagery of the sport for the film’s art-house target audience but without alienating any potential cross-over appeal that might lure actual wrestling fans ( the parents who brought their ten year old to the screening I attended) to the ticket booth.
As for the supporting cast, Wood perhaps best exemplifies the inelegance of Aronofsky’s approach to his cast: her eyes, face and voice all convey the intensity of her character’s heartache even as her hands slash the air in a series of awkward gesticulations. The actress obviously possesses the talent and the chops for her difficult role, but she’s sorely in need of, well, direction. That makes Aronofsky’s obvious disinterest in developing her character all the more disappointing.
A sloppily staged production of a lazy script, it’s hard not to think of The Wrestler without reminding oneself of Monster or The Last King of Scotland -films that are all but forgotten after the Academy Awards save for the charisma and craftsmanship of their stars. With Rourke the current Hollywood darling du jour, let’s hope his future projects will utilize his resurrected talent with more grace and restraint.
(Note: This review originally appeared for the film’s theatrical release.)