Hype for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler is an embarrassment; the excellent actor has had greater roles and given more interesting performances (his tabloid exploits notwithstanding). As a middle-aged, small-time wrestler living in a New Jersey trailer, Rourke’s Randy “Ram Jam” Robinson tells his estranged daughter, “Now I’m an old, broken-down piece of meat, and I’m alone and I deserve to be alone. I just don’t want you to hate me.” Jason Statham voiced more eloquent regret in Death Race; Ram Jam just wants pity.
Worst of all, Ram Jam confesses in an old amusement park where he and daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) go to reminisce about the good ol’ days. It’s lousy irony because nothing about The Wrestler is amusing. Director Darren Aronofsky has made a literal-minded parable about suffering and mankind’s miserable existence. Aronofsky inflicts as much pain on the audience as self-flagellating Ram Jam does when brutalizing/mutilating himself in and outside the ring.
Full of self-inflicted lacerations and injections, Ram Jam is his own voodoo doll. Everything he does is an act of masochistic penance—very strange in an anti-spiritual movie. When his stripper girlfriend Cassidy (a superbly buck-naked Marisa Tomei) recommends he watch The Passion of the Christ, it’s another lead-pipe irony. Ram Jam responds, “Tuff, dude,” while Cassidy goes through her own Stations of the Stripper’s Pole. Sanctimony like this appeals primarily to cynics who scoff at Mel Gibson’s sincerity yet cheer Aronofsky’s repulsive, violent nihilism. The message that life is hell is a pseudo-intellectual’s version of professional wrestling bunkum. People too smart to appreciate the fun and insight of the wrestling comedy Ready to Rumble lap up the irony that Ram Jam is ready to die.
Ram Jam is a thuggish version of a Sylvester Stallone role, and its obviousness is better suited to Stallone’s cornball ambitions. Rourke’s too good for this crap and has proved it consistently throughout his up-and-down career. Where was the Oscar talk for his ingenious, witty Bukowski characterization in Barfly, his memorably sly lawyer in The Rainmaker or his true career comeback as the comic-book brute in Sin City?
Forget The Wrestler’s hype; it’s worth remembering Rourke’s finest performance and best film, Walter Hill’s 1989 Johnny Handsome. Hill and Rourke surveyed a young man whose congenital facial deformities get repaired and then are threatened by his underworld involvement. Reviving the fairytale richness of a film noir, Johnny Handsome’s reflection of social inequality also had existential dimensions (through Morgan Freeman, Forest Whitaker and Elizabeth McGovern’s vivid participation). Hill’s postmodern B-movie triumph gave depth to pop fantasy. Johnny’s spiritual awakening through his re-defined self-image was one of the most beautiful moments of Rourke’s career—worthy of how critic John Demetry described Frank Borzage heroes as “photographed to look like angels.”
In The Wrestler, Rourke’s tenderness is degraded and made pitiful—another self-exploiting tabloid spectacle. Ram Jam is a distorted white working-class stereotype, but Aronofsky can’t tell courage from vainglory, foolhardiness from sacrifice. Shame on Bruce Springsteen for contributing a self-pitying title song to Aronofsky’s indie artsiness.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Running Time: 109 min.
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