[Screen It]

(2008) (Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei) (R)

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Drama: Now middle-aged, a former pro wrestler continues to perform in decidedly less than stellar venues but must contend with his ravaged and faltering body, all while hoping to reconcile with his estranged adult daughter and believing he might have a romantic future with a stripper.
Back in the 1980s, Randy "The Ram" Robinson (MICKEY ROURKE) was a popular professional wrestler, entertaining the masses with his in the ring antics, including his legendary rivalry with fellow wrestler, The Ayatollah (ERNEST MILLER). Now middle-aged and with a faltering body both from the natural aging process and the ravages the sport have inflicted on it, he still wrestles, albeit on a much smaller and decidedly less than grandiose scale.

When not earning some money from that or attempting to make some bucks from his past fame and fan meet and greet sessions, he works at the local grocery for boss Lenny (MARK MARGOLIS) during the day, and visits stripper Cassidy (MARISA TOMEI) at her workplace at night. She has a soft spot for him but must still treat him as a customer, while he hopes that perhaps there's something more between them.

After all, he's a lonely man, living in a trailer by himself, lamenting the fact that he barely knows his ultra-estranged adult daughter, Stephanie (EVAN RACHEL WOOD), who wants nothing to do with him. As he tries to make amends with her and romantic inroads with Cassidy, he must contend with various setbacks that not only complicate his goals, but also threaten to put an end to the only thing that makes sense to him -- professional wrestling.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Much like the stars in the skies, but obviously covering a much shorter duration, stars here on Earth shine brightly for a while, but inevitably begin to lose their luster and progressively dim to the point of barely being seen by anyone. Sure, there are those who blow up supernova style and go out at or around their height of glory, but most fade away, at varying speeds, into relative obscurity.

I've always wondered what that must be like, especially for those who continue to perform in their selected vocational field. Take, for instance, most any rock band from the 1980s. While a few are still around and kicking at or near the same level of output as when they first made it big, most now appear in much smaller venues to much smaller crowds. Accordingly, are they ashamed by this, resigned to the fact that it's just the way it is, or are they simply happy to still be working?

Granted, at least most of them can still do so as their ages continue to climb, unlike most professional athletes where the years and mileage combine to prevent most, save for golfers and a few others, from competing any more. But what if such people try to continue, even if their bodies have or are turning against them, and do so mainly because they have nowhere else to turn to make a living?

Such is the question put to the test in "The Wrestler," a terrific piece of filmmaking that covers that and other questions in a completely engrossing fashion. What's most compelling about it, however, is that its tale somewhat parallels that of its lead actor, a performer who nails the part with such honesty and believability that it's likely going to brighten his star -- at least in the short term -- due to what will have to be a number of acting nominations and possible victories.

Shock of all shocks, I'm referring to Mickey Rourke, one of the "bad boy" actors of his generation who came to fame in the 1980s (much like his character in this film), went through all sorts of ups and downs in his professional and personal life (ditto), and is now attempting his comeback (ah, the trifecta of parallelism). He's often played gritty, rough and tumble and/or world weary characters, but he takes those qualities to new heights here.

It's a performance that's simply astounding to watch, not only due to the massive physical transformation (I don't think I want to know what he did to get his 58-year-old body into such bulky yet cut shape), but also because it reminds us this guy can truly act, and the symbiotic relationship he has with his character only makes his work all the more poignant.

Of course, he benefits greatly from having the terrific director Darren Aronofsky behind the wheel. Aside from the misstep that was "The Fountain," the filmmaker has an excellent track record of telling memorable tales of woe and downtrodden characters. Unlike his previous efforts, however, this one is handled in his most mainstream fashion yet as there are no fancy camera tricks and edits that populated the likes of "Requiem for a Dream" and "Pi." Instead, he and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel present a fairly straightforward story that manages to engage on all levels.

All sorts of thematic elements are in play, ranging from people who aren't prepared to deal with life after their stardom is gone to the effects of such fame on family life (a subplot features Evan Rachel Wood as the protagonist's estranged, young-adult daughter who's reluctant to accept suddenly renewed contact from her father).

But the overriding one -- that none of us can avoid and which was also the subject in Aronofsky's last pic) -- is that of the effects of aging and one's attempts to counter and/or mask that. Beyond another subplot that features Marisa Tomei as an aging stripper (in a field of work where youth and beauty proportionally equate to income), various scenes feature Rourke's character dying his hair, injecting steroids and such, all while contending with reading glasses, hearing aides, and bypass surgery that individually and collectively threaten to cut off the only thing that's brought him happiness, but also pain.

A scene where he and other past pro wrestlers sit in a barely attended autograph session, in wheelchairs and with catheter bags and such is a telling and devastating statement about the need to continue making a living and/or still wanting a small piece of ever-retreating fame and adoration in the face of Father Time who keeps marching forward, dragging all of us into old age.

All of that might make the flick sound depressing, and to a degree it is. But there are also enough bits of humor to temper some of that, as well as the overriding theme of the human spirit and those who continue to persevere despite the various daunting obstacles standing in their way. Working on a number of levels and featuring a terrific if heartbreaking performance by Rourke in the lead, "The Wrestler" is one of the best films of 2008. It rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 10 / Posted December 25, 2008

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