Imagining someone other than the beatifically battered Mickey Rourke in the role of "The Wrestler" would be like picturing someone other than John Malkovich in "Being John Malkovich." As washed-up onetime ring master Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Rourke -- a career crash victim himself -- is "The Wrestler": He embodies the same tragedy of ego that afflicts his character.
Rourke drags Randy's steroid-inflated corpus from battle to battle with the painful perseverance of Liza Minnelli and the weariness of a stop-lossed Marine. His hearing aid and reading glasses are arrows through the heart.
Randy and his fellow performers stage their pumped-up battles anywhere, from VFW posts to school auditoriums, with a kind of noble, if unknowing, regard for the venerable traditions of the stage. The grapplers behave collegially, working out moves and falls and the various assaults to come, as if the Christians were conspiring with the lions. Randy ritually beats his forearms, rather than his chest, which is where the real trouble erupts: Following what is probably the movie's most gruesome sequence, Randy has a heart attack, and his long, slow denouement picks up reckless speed.
As good as Rourke is, and as willingly as he throws himself on the figurative hand grenade, his performance constantly begs the question of whether the story would be worth telling without him. Marisa Tomei, as Cassidy the pole dancer, delivers a courageous performance, one nearly as ego-battering as Rourke's. That Randy would be looking in a strip bar for love is perhaps "The Wrestler's" most poetic aspect. Both Randy and Cassidy exist in fairly shadowy worlds that thrive on youth; both are aging out. Randy's late-inning reunion with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is poignant, and a less rigid actress might have made more of it.
But in the broader sense, Randy is another in a long line of American screen characters -- be they gangsters, gunslingers, ballplayers or, in this case, fighters -- who are facing the inevitable and can't ease their regrets. We feel for him. And we feel for us. Maybe that's enough.
-- John Anderson (Dec. 25, 2008)
Contains violence, vulgarity, drug use, nudity, sexuality.
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