(director: Darren Aronofsky; screenwriter: Robert Siegel; cinematographer: Andrew Weisblum; editor: Maryse Alberti; music: Clint Mansell; cast: Mickey Rourke (Randy “the Ram” Robinson), Marisa Tomei (Cassidy/Pam), Evan Rachel Wood (Stephanie Robinson), Mark Margolis (Lenny), Todd Barry (Wayne), Judah Friedlander (Scott Brumberg), Ernest Miller (The Ayatollah); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Scott Franklin/Darren Aronofsky; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2008-France/USA-in English)

The 57-year-old Rourke makes a triumphant comeback.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director Darren Aronofsky (“Pi”/”The Fountain”/”Requiem for a Dream”) makes all the right moves in this superior wrestling pic that in a straight dramatic way calls out the wrestling world for its fixed fights, animal-like nature, encouragement of steroid use, and the psychologically warped working stiff fans who vicariously live for the thrill of the ring’s brutal moments and to worship their manufactured heroes handed to them on a silver platter by the unscrupulous promoters. But it mainly tells the agony and ecstasy story of an aging bleached blond long hair washed-up once popular big-time wrestling hero icon, Randy “the Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), who is still not completely forgotten and is trying to survive these lean years of late by holding down a part-time warehouse job stocking crates in a supermarket and wrestling weekends in small-time venues–such as school gymnasiums in the New Jersey area, some twenty years after his glory days in the 1980s. Ram suffers from a battered body, bruised ego, loneliness, family estrangement and lack of money.

The hard-hitting script by Robert Siegel offers a riveting character study of loneliness and the sympathetic but self-destructive wrestler’s desperate attempts to find out what makes his life worth living. It’s an old-fashioned formulaic boxing story (even though done many times before I can’t ever recall it being more effectively realistic, and is thankfully far removed from the disingenuous Stallone portrayal of “Rocky Balboa”) that is timeless and universal, as it evokes a gritty sense of working-class hopes and reality leaving an indelible impression of the character’s turmoil, frustrations, guts and inner convictions left on the mat for us to observe.

After a promising start in films and then self-destructing the fiftysomething Rourke makes a triumphant comeback after 15 years of no work (time out for a boxing career and some recent smaller comebacks), playing with restraint and without his usual self-indulgences a down-and-out character I don’t think anyone else on the planet could have played better. It’s an Academy Award type of performance.

The story picks up with Ram, who is still in fairly good shape with a bod pumped full of ‘roids, wrestling in a small-time arena for peanuts and dreaming the dream that he can get back on top again on the pro wrestling circuit. After the choreographed match (with the opponents being chummy with each other before the matches, as they go over moves for the bout and ways of self-mutilation), Ram returns to his seedy trailer park home only to find out the manager locked him out for not paying the rent and won’t admit him until he pays.

Aside from being well-liked and admired by his ringmates and looked up to as a tough guy by the children in his neighborhood, Ram’s only other human contact is a lively older single mom kindred soul exotic dancer in the local strip club named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) where he occasionally goes for a drink and for a lap dance. She treats him as a special customer, and after he has a heart attack and open-heart surgery, she’s the only one Ram feels comfortable telling about it. He even tells her that the doctor said that he can’t wrestle anymore or take steroids, and he has decided to retire. Confessing to her his loneliness, Cassidy tells him to seek out family and helps him pick out a gift for his estranged high-school daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) he plans to reunite with after years of abandonment. She lives nearby with an unidentified black woman and has lost any feelings for dad because he abandoned her when she needed him most and still feels the hurt. His try at a reconciliation fails when he foolishly and selfishly doesn’t show up for a planned dinner out.

Trying to earn extra money at the supermarket, Ram reluctantly works the deli counter during the busy weekend day shift and is humiliated when recognized by a customer causing him to quit on the spot. This overwhelming humiliation is the last straw in a series of humiliations and drives him back into wrestling, as he agrees to appear in a dream 20th-anniversary rematch–repeating his most famous one with the Ayatollah (Ernest Miller) in Madison Square Garden. Despite the consequences of getting into the ring again, Ram has accepted his fate and has resigned himself to do the only thing he cares about and that is being the good-guy gladiator cheered by the ring fans–his only family, the people who best identify with him.

The film deservedly won top prize, the Golden Lion, at this year’s Venice Film Festival. It continues Aronofsky’s string of top-notch films, every one uniquely different and masterly helmed. Even though his metaphysical arthouse film The Fountain was panned by many critics, I think they missed the boat on that one and in due time it will be recognized as a masterpiece that was misunderstood upon its release by critics who didn’t have the wherewithal to get into its mysticism and resorted to mocking something that flew by them. There, of course, is no problem coming to grips with the straightforward The Wrestler and Aronofsky’s moving depiction of his working class hero and the authenticity he brings in regards to pro wrestling. The young filmmaker shows that he can be favorably compared to the best of the world’s modern directors, with possibly greater things on the horizon if the Hollywood studio system doesn’t get to his independence.

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