"The Wrestler" doesn't add up. It's constructed with great care around a lead performance that is everything it could possibly be, but the picture itself is off-putting and disappointing. How can this be?
That performance, as all of Hollywood already knows, is Mickey Rourke's affecting work as Randy "the Ram" Robinson, a once great name in professional wrestling who has fallen on hard times, reduced to bouts in school gymnasiums to pay the rent on his bleak trailer. As the blues lyric says, if he didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have no luck at all.
Rourke, who's had his own very public bouts with career disintegration, falls naturally into this role and makes it his own. The actor has said he hesitated to take it on "because it was a little too close," and that innate understanding of what his character is going through, combined with Rourke's ability, make this one of the performances of the year.
Rourke brings just the right amount of faded charisma to Robinson, a man whose face is so frozen he can only express emotion with his eyes. With his long, curly golden hair, his artificial tan, steroid-enhanced musculature and bloated face, the actor is not playing himself but rather a part powerfully informed by his past life.
Initially, at least, the rest of "The Wrestler" feels like a good fit with Rourke's work. As written by Robert Siegel, shot in verite style by Maryse Alberti and directed by Darren Aronofsky, the film has captured the down-at-the-heels ambience of the lower rungs of professional wrestling, a subculture that was into performance art well before the high culture world heard of it.
Things start to fall apart when "The Wrestler's" determination to wallow in the pain of Robinson's bouts reveals itself. A certain amount of that is necessary, but this film pushes well beyond that, yearning for the excessive until it feels like Aronofsky and company are making a fetish of audience discomfort. When a wrestler is introduced whose trademark is using a staple gun on opponents, it becomes clear that these scenes are not about realism, they are about making us squirm for squirming's sake.
The aftermath of that staple-gun bout leads Robinson to the knowledge that he may not be able to wrestle again. He starts to reassess his life and tries to establish emotional connection with the two people he is closest to. That turns out not to be such a good idea, either for the Ram or the film.
Despite years of estrangement, Robinson seeks out daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who is still carrying a major grudge from that mother of all movie resentments, the missed birthday party. Everything about this reconciliation scenario, from its anger to its tears, is so hopelessly contrived and predictable you can tell what's going to happen next by looking at your watch.
Robinson also pursues a more lasting relationship with one of his few non-wrestling contacts, a veteran exotic dancer named Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) who is his lap dancer of choice at a local club. Tomei's acting skill makes this a more interesting scenario than the father-daughter subplot, but it is hampered by one too many scenes of Cassidy's nude dancing that once again make "The Wrestler" exploitative just when it thinks it's being honest.
That weakness for overdoing things whenever possible, that willingness to push too hard to ensure that the walls close in on the Ram good and proper, is a flaw that plays out throughout the film.
When, for instance, Robinson gets a job behind a deli counter, a Samson forced to wear a hairnet, nothing will do but that he meet the hands-down customer from hell and that he respond in the bloodiest, most excessive way he can imagine.
This cold, schematic quality, this determination to bludgeon the audience into correct emotional thinking, was a feature of Aronofsky's earlier films, including "Requiem for a Dream" and "The Fountain," and it is present here as well.
While the director was essential in collaborating with Rourke to create that memorable performance, it remains real work in an essentially fake film, and there is nothing anyone can do about that.
MPAA rating: R for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
Playing: In limited release