“The Wrestler” – No-Holds-Barred Storytelling – 4 popcorns

popcornBy Michael S. Goldberger, film critic 

You couldn’t tell my Dad wrestling was fake. In his favorite chair, our little dog Tibble on his lap, he’d root with a fervor that we feared would kill him. Here was a man who lost almost everything in the Holocaust, started all over in America, and made a safe world for two children. But wrestling was real. Like “The Wrestler,” he got the metaphor.

Darren Aronofsky’s no-holds-barred character study starring Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a onetime headliner now resigned to the faded glory of matches in Elks Clubs and high school gyms, has a Cassavetes-like starkness. It is truth artistically conveyed but without artifice. If it holds that grace is possible, it isn’t easily achieved. 

That’s what Randy, nee Robin Ramzinsky, really wants, whether he knows it or not. Motivations and desires are difficult to see clearly from inside the tumultuous survival mode in which he’s become ensconced. Life is hopefully being recognized for what he once was, wooing a stripper and regularly being locked out of his N.J. trailer camp digs.

Yet, pumped full of steroids and pain pills, with little more than experience holding him up, The Ram fights off the sadness of his fate by pursuing his exploits in this underbelly of sport. If he’s a loser, he’s the champ of losers…in locker rooms a swaggering, self-effacing warrior well liked by both neophyte and fellow has-been. He makes no excuses.

Even his illusions are delivered tongue-in-cheek. So when there’s talk of a 20th anniversary rematch with the Ayatollah, his archenemy back in the glorious ‘80s, it’s taken with a grain of salt. Meanwhile, the plan is to keep on trucking. That is, until providence tosses our antihero something entirely unexpected to wrestle.

Maybe he should have seen it coming. But Mrs. Ramzinsky’s little boy isn’t exactly known for his foresight or planning. Truth is, even his view of the past is kind of cloudy. All the same, when destiny foists this new, mortality-underscoring chapter on him, he rushes to make human connection. First stop is Cassidy, played by Marisa Tomei.

One of the ladies at the local exotic dancing joint, Miss Tomei’s superbly etched counterpart to Mr. Rourke’s damaged goods has her own rationalizations to protect. Thus it may not be just sexual politics at work when she reminds her favorite customer of the wall that must be maintained between them. Still, she offers to help in another way.

The Ram wishes to reconcile with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), the one he abandoned when she was a little girl. Cassidy, whose real name is Pam, suggests where he might procure just the right peace offering. The shopping expedition leads to a friendly drink, some reminiscences, and a bit of a dance. Boy they play this scene well.

In fact, there’s nary a false step or emotion to be found in any of the performances. Both Tomei and Rourke manage not only to plumb the depths of their characters’ tragedy, but the darkly glib humor that lies therein as well. Randy’s part-time deli counter segue is a hoot to behold. Evan Rachel Wood as daughter Stephanie keeps it real, to coin a phrase.

It’s all made possible by Robert D. Siegel’s doubtlessly inspiring script, wielded confidently by young Mr. Aronofsky. Too enthusiastic to be self-conscious, the director breathes new life into the author’s splendidly reworked cliché: the fallen champion trying to piece together a conventional reality that never really existed for him. 

Mickey Rourke’s award-worthy interpretation of Randy “The Ram” Robinson defies you to separate the physical from the cerebral. His lumbering, foot-dragging walk from the locker room to the arena dramatically portends the arrival of contemporary society’s newest Frankenstein, a patched- and pieced-together combination of gladiator and martyr.

That sexy Miss Tomei matches creds and complements without drawing attention from Rourke’s troubled beast in this naturalistic voyage to the bottom of the soul only reaffirms the depths of her talent. A change in vector here or there and her Cassidy/Pam could very well become the film’s central character. 

The synergistic balance adds dimension and makes for a dire little love story, a sort of New Jersey variation on the romance Streep and Nicholson realized in “Ironweed” (1987). Namely, love, or at least the search for it, grows in back alleys, along the Turnpike and in hootchie-kootchie bar parking lots.

None of this is to suggest that red-blooded sorts who couldn’t give a sweet patootie about similes, allegories or any of that other jazz won’t find favor with this broodingly poetic, body-slamming paean to wrestling. As with most finer works of art grappling for answers, “The Wrestler” doesn’t pin its speculative hopes on just one level of insight.

“The Wrestler,” rated R, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Darren Aronofsky and stars Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. Running time: 115 minutes  

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