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Going to the mat for a hot 'Wrestler'

September 09, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

TORONTO — INDEPENDENT film may be grappling with an inability to perform at the box office, but that didn't stop "The Wrestler" from inspiring an all-night bidding war after it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday night.

Fox Searchlight ended up buying the U.S distribution rights to the Darren Aronofsky film, which had already won the prestigious Golden Lion prize at last week's Venice Film Festival. The movie, which features a riveting performance from Mickey Rourke as an over-the-hill wrestler, was considered the hottest potential buy at the festival. Searchlight chief Peter Rice was not available for comment, but rival bidders say the sale was completed in the wee hours Monday morning, with the film going for a purchase price in the $4-million to $5-million range.

Sony Pictures and Lionsgate were also leading bidders, but Searchlight, which has emerged in recent years as the specialty world's leading marketing and distribution entity, came away with the prize. It is expected that Searchlight will release the film later this year, at least in L.A. and New York for an Academy Award qualifying run. The sale gives Searchlight two of the top attractions here: The company recently took over U.S. marketing and distribution for Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire," the surprise hit of the recent Telluride Film Festival, which Searchlight will release Nov. 28. The studio shares the film with Warner Bros., which didn't have enough space on its schedule or passion for the project. In "The Wrestler," Rourke is an over-the-hill fighter whose best days are way behind him. With his shoulder-length, dirty-blond curls, a fake tan and a scarred body bulked up on cheap steroids, he looks less like Gorgeous George than the dissolute leader of an '80s hair band gone to seed. The movie is loaded with cheesy '80s rock (think Ratt, Poison or Motley Crue), which blares out of Rourke's dinged-up van and the strip club where his friend Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) works as a pole dancer.

But like Aronofsky's earlier "Requiem for a Dream," the film really has the mien of a '70s picture -- it's about lost souls and beautiful losers. When Rourke and his aging wrestler pals show up for an autograph session, with their scars, prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs, they're truly the walking wounded -- they look like a squadron of bedraggled Vietnam vets.

This is the movie the acquisition crowd in Toronto had been waiting to see, everyone clearing his or her schedule to be at the 6 p.m. premiere at the lovely old Elgin Theater on Sunday. It was a packed house. The studio execs were all here, even Paramount production chief John Lesher, who wore a nice suit and gave me a warm but perhaps ironic hug, since I've made fun of him in the blog for hugging everyone in sight. (That's OK, John, we still appreciated it.) The big-time critics were all safely ensconced in reserved seats -- Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, National Public Radio's John Powers and the one and only Elvis Mitchell. The film's stars were all on hand -- Rourke, Tomei and a very goth-like Evan Rachel Wood, who came with her boyfriend, Marilyn Manson, and earned a "Happy Birthday" serenade from a bunch of boisterous moviegoers, it being her 21st birthday.

Before the film began, the boyish-looking Aronofsky took the stage, wearing a crisp gray suit and tie that made him look like one of the young ad executives in "Mad Men." Clearly in good spirits, his movie having just won in Venice, he heaped praise on Rourke, calling him "an eggshell -- a fragile, beautiful human being."

But, of course, I know what you really want to know -- how's the movie? Here's my take:

It's hard to imagine that anyone came away disappointed. The film is brutal, but the brutality is there to remind us just how tawdry the life of a wrestler can be. Still, I had to hide my eyes during some of the fight scenes, even more so during the backstage sequences in which a trainer tries to patch up Rourke after he's been repeatedly conked over the head with a metal chair or had his chest punctured with a staple gun. The blood definitely flows.

But the film also has a strange beauty to it, especially as we watch Rourke clumsily try to establish some kind of human connection, either with Tomei, who rarely lets down her guard, or with Wood, who's in no hurry to rekindle a dad-daughter relationship with one of the more unreliable fathers on the planet. The film even has some nice, dry wit, especially when we see Rourke working his day job behind the deli counter, having to patiently put up with pushy old ladies who can't decide how much potato salad they want.

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