Thursday, December 14, 2017

Darren Aronofsky, part V: I ain't as pretty as I used to be


The Wrestler may be close to a one-man show, but Mickey Rourke puts on a damn good one in what turns out to be the Aronofsky movie with the lightest touch of them all.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Robert Siegel
With Mickey Rourke (Randy "The Ram" Robinson), Marisa Tomei (Cassidy), and Evan Rachel Wood (Stephanie)

Spoiler alert: moderate

There are a lot of comebacks in The Wrestler, which is maybe why it's so well-regarded—because America loves redemption, almost as much as it loves watching the fall happen in the first place.  It was a comeback for Mickey Rourke, who plays its lead, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a wrestler who hit the top of his profession years earlier, then frittered it away on ego and dissolution; in other words, Rourke plays a version of himself, and, certainly, it's hard to think of anyone else in the role at all.  It was the completion of a comeback for Marisa Tomei, who kind of came back already the previous year, with Lumet's last picture, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, though I tend to like The Wrestler a great deal more than that film, and I also tend to like Tomei more in this one.  It was a comeback for Darren Aronofsky, too, young as he was in 2008.  His preceding film had failed badly enough, amongst both critics and paying audiences, that his career now hinged on a demonstration that he was still capable of some kind of success.

Finally, of course, it's the story of a comeback—though it's about as dark as a "comeback story" could ever possibly be.  For it's also a movie about obsession and self-destruction, but, then, we covered that back when I said it was "directed by Darren Aronofsky."

We find The Ram long past his prime—though in his prime, he sold out Madison Square Garden and competed with a man dressed in an Iranian flag for the fate of our nation, reclaiming America's honor with his patented high-flying finishing move, the infamous "Ram Jam."  He was even big enough that Nintendo licensed his likeness for a WWF game.  Now, while still a legend in wrestling circles, he's more of a local celebrity, and he makes his ends (almost) meet with a lousy stockboy job at the local supermarket while wrestling only on the weekends, and in the saddest venues imaginable.  True, maybe he would have more money if he didn't frequent bars and his neighborhood strip club, "Cheeques"; though if he didn't, he probably wouldn't have the woman he'd obviously like to call his closest friend, Cassidy.  However, it's hard to say if she'd actually return that sentiment.

Endorsements?  Ironic cameos in film and television?  Anything?  No, I guess The Ram's a bit of a purist like that.  It's admirable.  In its way.

Wrestling's not as easy as it used to be for Randy, that's clear enough.  It becomes awfully damn clear to him, too, when a brutal Grand Guignol-style hardcore match turns into a full-blown heart attack in the locker room, and lands Randy right in the hospital.  But nothing else is any easier: when he takes Cassidy's advice and tries to reconnect with the daughter he abandoned decades ago, it goes about as well as could be hoped, right up until it doesn't; when he makes a move on Cassidy, who's been so kind and generous up till now, this doesn't go quite as planned either; and, when he commits to his "career" at the grocery store, they put him in a customer-facing position, which lasts just about exactly as long as Randy's dwindling reserves of charm and patience permit.  It doesn't leave a man with a lot of options, but there is talk, on the 20th anniversary of The Ram's defeat of the Ayatollah, of an epic rematch.

So it's one old-fashioned story that Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert Siegel are telling, then, and literally about the only things newfangled about it at all are the facts that Tomei bares her actual boobs as our aging stripper with a heart of gold, and that Aronofsky, working with his new, once-and-done cinematographer Maryse Alberti, builds his film out of the grubbiest kind of docudrama naturalism, encouraging on-set improvisation from his actors, and just generally wallowing in the grit of it all.

It is, as a result, the quietest, most stripped-down movie Aronofsky ever made, which doesn't say nearly as much as it needs to, when the three previous films Aronofsky had made, and the three he'd go on to make, are so enormously loud, and so ornately baroque.  But The Wrestler, if not quite anonymous—and, fortunately, it's not—is Aronofsky simplified to the very bare essentials of his style, all intimate moving cameras and a lot, I mean a lot, of alternation between close-ups and long-shots that are at least little too long to be completely comfortable.  This is for good and ill alike, and sometimes it's hard to tell which side Aronofsky's choices fall on: The Wrestler might be built going on about fifty percent out of walking handheld shots from behind Rourke's head, and the sameness of it starts to get a bit noticeable.  Though of course this is a meainingful motif—and Aronofsky has the sense to punch these shots up with some very canny jump cuts, because Aronofsky's still Aronofsky, and takes longer than a second have never exactly been his go-to move.  Grainy-as-fuck filmstock has been, however, and there's a rough verite beauty to Alberti's 16mm imagery.  It decisively captures the redneck complexion of the below-the-waterline wrestling circuit, which Aronofsky critiques without quite mocking (though it's Rourke, who channels a genuine affection for the sport and for its fans, who fully takes the sting out of it).  And it captures well the squalor of Randy's own life, too; Randy spends most of the first part of his movie locked out of his rented mobile home, and living in his van instead.  Though this is practically a lateral move.

Its artlessness sometimes seems more than deliberate, even so—like when Randy gets out of the hospital, and the film indulges in a downright barbaric zoom onto our man's bypass scar.  (Yeah; we get it.)  And yet it's never as low as the gross indie it resembles, thank God—"lighting" isn't some tertiary concern, for example, and neither is "basic watchability," for Alberti keeps her hand sure—and so it does have that going for it, at the very least.  Outside of the wrestling matches themselves, of which there are three (each arranged with noticeably different editing rhythms, just to mix things up)—or maybe even including those wrestling matches, now that I think about it—the single best and most flamboyant exercise of this Aronofsky movie is Randy's bitterly ironic recollection of the noise of a cheering crowd—perhaps to psych himself up, but more likely to tear himself down just a little more, as he prepares to cross the plastic threshold into his grocery store's deli for the very first time.  Meanwhile, Clint Mansell did a score for this movie, as he usually would—and you can barely even tell.  (The accompaniment, instead, is mostly bitchin' 80s rock.  Diegetic, at that.)

You do see the plus side of Aronofsky's retreat from the bleeding edge of his aesthetic: it allows a lot more room to breathe, and as much as The Wrestler is just another remake of Pi—much as its balletic companion piece The Black Swan would be, two years later—it has the outright amazing distinction in the Aronofsky canon of being about real live human beings, for once.  (It doesn't come off as too much of a surprise, by the way, that The Wrestler and Black Swan began as the same project, a story of a pro wrestler enamored with a ballerina.  Aronofsky only severed the films when he decided it was just too much for one movie.)

This, coming from the guy who made The fucking Fountain?  (Alternatively, Aronofsky's joking, and just acknowledging they're practically the same plot.)

Anyway, maybe that light touch really was for the best: it's an extraordinarily successful acting showcase for Rourke.  While it's at least a little bit unfair that it was this movie that everybody decided to call Rourke's comeback—and not his far more memorable turn as Marv back in Sin City, fully three years earlier—I'll happily concede that on a pure technical level this is every bit as good, if not a damn sight better.  The physicality is already almost too perfect: Rourke looks exactly like what an aging, hard-knocks wrestler should look like, complete with the steroidal physique beginning to sag and the athleticism just beginning to decline.  (Rourke, you'll recall, gave up the movies for boxing for a few years.)  The real trick, though, is Rourke finding the weathered charisma in Randy, rather than simply aggressively pushing his sadness—unlike most Aronofsky heroes, Randy is interiored and cagey with his emotions (you know, like a person), and most of the time he's an incredibly friendly, loveable half-doofus, whereas all the things tearing him up inside, though obvious to us, are still far enough under the surface that it takes genuine stress to crack his ice.  Maybe this is why the worst part of the whole movie is the sua sponte spilling of guts that happens when Randy manages to talk to his daughter for more than ten minutes, though it's not helped by the way that it's practically walled off in its own hermetic universe by the way Aronofsky's decided to stitch this scene to all the rest.  But I bet it's also why the best part is Randy's speech that denies his pain.

Or maybe it's because Evan Rachel Wood's Stephanie is a mediocre performance inhabiting a bad character, who transparently exists just to make Randy feel feelings, and whose own hurt comes off more as whining than the never-closed wound it clearly ought to.  Tomei fares significantly better, albeit with a role that's scarcely less mechanical; she offers a great deal of warmth beneath her flintiness, each of her choices suiting her stereotype well.  But not flawlessly, I'm afraid, and I can't help but feel something of a miscasting was involved.  The Wrestler is a movie about the body, after all.  And so there's something incredibly potentially powerful about its portrait of a man and a woman, both getting on in their years, both of whom have made their livings off their bodies, and who have now found their bodies inevitably beginning to betray them.  Rourke finds the power in that theme effortlessly, which, I know, is actually kind of a mean thing to say, though I mean it well.  And yet, with all due consideration to the basic industrial reality of the matter (actresses being naturally reluctant to appear unattractive, and no director wishing to be the one to fight for any female role with significant nudity that also features anything short of perfect jerk-offability), I still have to think that the right actress to play Cassidy simply was not Marisa Tomei.

Sure, she fits the age range, which is what they call "a technicality."

The Wrestler's a good movie with just a few bad parts, then—I really would rather that the daughter plot had been wished into the cornfield early, in favor of more time spent on the sharp-edged, surrender-tinged relationship between Randy and Cassidy, which works very well when it works, and could only have worked better if it had more space to grow—but as usual with Aronofsky, it's all about the ending.  And it is a great, even perfect ending, though you do see it coming from a mile away, and this clairvoyance casts the whole film in a shadow that makes it seem perhaps more wheel-spinning and arbitrary than it already is.  This is the hard-to-deny downside to Aronofsky's easier approach (though, I suppose, many have indeed denied it): what the film gains in humanity it loses in intensity.  But then, while you do know exactly what's going to happen an hour before it does, when that intensity comes roaring back in just a few minutes at the close, it truly is something to see—and to feel.

Score:  7/10

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