Some of us really did expect sentimental favorite Mickey Rourke to take that Oscar, but maybe it’s better that he didn’t. This way, Rourke’s almost but not quite Academy-blessed performance in The Wrestler may forever maintain its underdog integrity.
Besides, we already got the highly anticipated spectacle of a Rourke acceptance speech, for his Best Male Actor Independent Spirit Award, on the previous day: Rourke forgot his co-star Marisa Tomei’s name, asked if anybody might get his friend Eric Roberts an acting job, swore up a storm, and referred so nonchalantly to various lewd acts that he made Anne Hathaway blush. Google that one if you haven’t already; it’s a keeper.
And yes, so is the performance in question, without which The Wrestler would be nothing. To say so is not to insult Tomei, who dignifies the tart-with-a-heart routine this movie requires of her, nor to discredit writer Robert D. Siegel or director Darren Aronofsky, who reportedly got Rourke involved by firmly informing the actor that if he did exactly as he was told, and showed no disrespect, he could count on that Oscar nomination.
The Wrestler is as much a full-fledged comeback for Rourke–the wily 1980s alt-heartthrob no longer, God knows–as it is a stylistic reversal for Aronofsky, whose previous, highly fussy The Fountain reached hard for heady science fiction and seemed to exceed its own grasp. But the filmmaker’s intentions are as consistent as they are confident: Aronofsky likes to work with melodrama and see how far he can stretch, disguise or even redeem it.
With The Wrestler, that means meeting up with Rourke’s character, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, after his long, self-propelled slide from arena fame into gymnasium obscurity, and recording what’s left of the man’s life, including his chance for salvation, in an attentive vérité style. It means Siegel’s script, like Maryse Alberti’s cinematography, most succeeds by being lifelike, and not being noticeable. The Wrestler at its best feels like a great documentary that’s been faked.
It’s not just that the camera gets right into the ring with the Ram and his typically younger, admiring opponents. It also hangs around for their backstage camaraderie, and follows him through his daily real-world routines: signing autographs; popping painkillers; dying his weather-beaten blond locks; practicing hits with pots and pans in the hardware store; botching reconciliation with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) after the inevitable heart attack; sharing a drink with his stripper friend (Tomei) and confusing her agreement that “the ’90s fuckin’ sucked” for romantic interest.
Meanwhile, a 20th anniversary reunion bout with his nemesis, the Ayatollah, looms. (“Two words: Re. Match.”) Does the Ram dare defy doctor’s orders for one more taste of glory? Well, he can’t really handle life outside the ring — all he knows to do with the feelings dredged up by his daughter’s understandable rejection, for instance, is injure himself on a deli-counter meat slicer — so what choice does he have?
Through all of this, Rourke is consistently guileless, gregarious and riveting to watch. Yes, the scenario is familiar, and he is basically playing himself. But so did the inner-city middle school teacher François Bégaudeau in Laurent Cantet’s elegantly gripping docudrama The Class. That too missed out on an Oscar but absolutely deserved the nomination. It isn’t sentimental to want movies to be true.