Early in this melodrama, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a thirtysomething stripper/pole dancer, regales Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a fiftysomething professional wrestler, with the awesomeness of The Passion of the Christ. Could this battle-scarred veteran of the ring be a messianic figure, a “sacrificial ram” who sheds his blood for the sake of his people, the bloodthirsty wrestling fans who live vicariously from victory to victory of their warrior god?
If that was the signal writer Robert Siegel and director Darren Aronofsky was sending, then they definitely overpromised and undelivered. And if we’re to believe Randy is merely a self-hating sado-masochist, reflecting the negative reactions of some to Mel Gibson’s Passion, well, such dime-store psychology merely makes their main character pathetic, not tragic.
It’s never really clear what Randy is, or what drives him other than the fact that his past as a wrestling hero, who fought “The Ayatollah” at the Garden back in the 80s to a sellout crowd, is all he has to live on. He’s Rocky Balboa if Rocky had been forced to throw his big fight against Apollo Creed and spent the next 20 years as an almost-champ living off the blowback from all that hype.
Unfortunately for the drama, you can see Randy’s end from the very beginning. There are no surprises, only inevitabilities. His life is little more than a series of contrived battles that produce real pain — the only real thing in his life. Love remains elusive, as he has ruined what relationships he has had and is incapable of forging new ones.
This too brings Rocky into relief, with The Wrestler paling by comparison. Sylvester Stallone created a set of secondary, supporting characters that were interesting and funny and sweet and memorable — sustainable across multiple sequels, for goodness’ sake. No one in The Wrestler, however, deserves our attention other than the star. The world Randy inhabits is a vacuum from which he can extract nothing new or fresh or vital.
As for Marisa Tomei, a good portion of her screen time is spent topless, as if there were no better way to remind us that she’s an “exotic dancer.” It’s gratuitous, as is the entire stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold routine. Could the writer do no better than rehash this cliché?
Even Randy’s alienated daughter, played with gusto and passion by Evan Rachel Wood, can do nor more than spout stale diatribes and dance on the emotional strings her puppeteers are plucking. She can only break her father’s heart because he has already broken hers. Why didn’t he come to all her birthdays? Why was he never there? And now he wants a relationship, at the end of his career, possibly at the end of his life?
Where have we seen this before? Everywhere, that’s where.
We’re supposed to see in Cassidy Randy’s complementary opposite. She, like Randy, leads a double life — in the strip club, she’s “Cassidy,” but at home, she’s Pam, mom to a 9-year-old, with dreams of moving into a condo somewhere in Jersey, far removed from her current circumstances. Randy doesn’t understand why they can’t be a couple outside the nightclub, where she’s used to giving the wrestler lap dances. But for Cassidy, Randy is just a customer. To Cassidy/Pam’s way of thinking, the two worlds are separate and unequal.
Randy doesn’t get it. But he will. After suffering a heart attack and cautioned to give up wrestling if he wants to live, he takes a job waiting on irascible customers at a deli counter, wearing a name tag with his hated given name (Robin). This is the “real world”? For Randy, this is insufferable. Even if it means risking his very life, he must return to the only home he’s ever known — the ring — where freedom comes from sailing through the air, landing on an opponent who knows just how to break both their falls. Robin doesn’t have a chance at happiness, but Randy, well, at least in the ring he feels something more than just regret. Pain is both a form of penance for a life lived badly and the only constant companion he can count on. Pain is real. Everything else is vain striving after wind.
I wanted to like this film. First of all, there’s Mickey Rourke’s much-vaunted performance, which definitely lives up to the advanced publicity. It’s all minimalist method, as if Rourke were struggling to emote under water. And the best, most original part of The Wrestler is the depiction of the wrestling fraternity itself: the backstage stuff where the pugs gather to discuss strategy: who’s going to throw whom out of the ring, who’s going break what over who’s head. There’s a congeniality, a sweetness, in the banter, especially in the younger generation’s attitude toward Randy. They love and respect this guy. One young tough, whose act is to play the hayseed farmer with a penchant for stapling U.S. currency to his face, addresses Randy as “Sir” — and means it.
I wish the whole film has been like this. We don’t need a Hollywood happy ending. Perhaps reconciliation and the white picket fence are truly beyond the Ram’s grasp. But we do need to feel we’re not being manipulated like professional wrestling’s audiences. If all the characters in Randy’s life had been drawn as thick as his trapezius, with a little more back story and more complex emotions and motivations, then we might have had a minor masterpiece here, a serious reflection on suffering as entertainment and how some people can only relive their past and never fashion a future. I’m sure that was the filmmakers’ intention. And some filmgoers may in fact see just that in The Wrestler. I think, however, it was all titillation, like one of Cassidy’s lap dances, with little genuine emotional connection. Randy walks through his paces, waiting for his big final payday. But unlike Rocky, where the hero loses the big fight but you leave the theater feeling elated, Randy is predestined to win his rematch with archrival the Ayatollah, yet you leave the theater feeling empty.
Rourke deserves his accolades and will no doubt win at least an Oscar nomination. The actor claims not to have been all that impressed with the script when he first read it. In fact, he claims to have rewritten his part. I wish he had been given time to rewrite the rest, as he deserved better for his extraordinary efforts. So did Randy.