Sunday, November 23, 2008

Working Stiff: Arturo v. The Wrestler!

The Wrestler is a better movie than it is a wrestling movie. But it's still the best pro wrestling non-documentary ever -- or, at least since The One And Only 30(!) years ago. And that's faint praise, indeed.

Director Darren Aronofsky and writer Robert Siegel go the Raging Bull route for this story, following former big-time wrestling star Randy Robinson (Mickey Rourke), now less "The Ram," as he's known, than a lion in winter, going around the horn thru various indie promotions.

What sets The Wrestler apart from other depictions of the wrestling life (thanks for nothing, Ready To Rumble) is, it shows us the price of Robinson's life: he seemingly scrapes by month-to-month, working at a grocery store during the week, barely earning enough for the rent but having enough to load himself up with the "athletic supplements" he needs to look close to how he did during his prime. A collage set to Bang Your Head shows us he was, as the saying goes, "kind of a big deal" in the Metalriffic '80s, but we don't know where, exactly, he lost his way.

Somewhere on that bad road, Randy had and lost a family. And, after he suffers a heart attack in a dressing room, he sets out to win at least part of it back, visiting his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) in order to try and reconnect. At the same time, he tries to forge a different kind of connection with a local stripper named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei, wearing the part, uh, well).

But really, the Ram's heart is in the ring, and he makes no bones about it. "You are my family," he tells an adoring crowd at the movie's climax, a rematch -- and a big payday -- with old rival The Ayatollah (former WCW non-standout Ernest "The Cat" Miller). Though the scene works well to create sympathy, or pity, for the character, the reactions he gets in the ring throughout the film don't jibe at all with the rest of the character's vibe, and not in a "good" way.

It's good to see a movie deal at least close to honestly with what wrestlers do before a show -- the respect to the veterans; the planning of finishes -- but The Wrestler tries to have it both ways, and it's tough for a wrestling fan to buy that an aging '80s retread a) is still a big draw; b) is "put over" (allowed to win, in wrestling parlance) over much younger workers; and c) wouldn't be making a better living if both of those things are indeed the case.

If there's one silver lining in The Wrestler, as a film if not as a specific story, it's the hope that it might spur Aronofsky or some other director to do a story about the Ram's polar opposite -- a young guy working his way up the ladder. Surely there's an appealing, 8 Mile type story out there waiting to be made, with a character modeled on the likes of Austin Aries or AJ Styles, the kind who could honestly, finally, make the "general public" understand what wrestling fans see and want to see in this sometimes sleazy, always strange business we choose to follow. As good as The Wrestler is, really it just went for the easy sympathy, for the cheap heat, a carny trick to gain acclaim, indeed.

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