I’m always a little surprised by how much I like the 2008 film The Wrestler.
Actually, to be honest, I’m more than a little surprised. I’m a lot surprise. First off, The Wrestler takes place in the world of professional wrestling and that’s a world that I not only know nothing about but which I also have very little interest. (My cousin Gustavo — Hi, Gus! — loved the Rock. That’s about the extent of my knowledge.) Add to that, The Wrestler doesn’t take place in the world of televised pro wrestling. (I may know nothing about wrestling but I do know a lot about television.) Instead, this is a world of backroom matches, broken dreams, and fading lives.
Secondly, The Wrestler features, as its hero, a man in his 50s who is still a total and complete fuckup. The character of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (played, in an Oscar-nominated performance, by Mickey Rourke) is perhaps epitomized by the fact that, after going out of his way to try to reconnect with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), and setting up a dinner date so that they can finally talk and get to know each other, Randy ends up getting consumed with self-pity, getting drunk, getting high, getting laid, and ultimately standing up his daughter. And whenever I see that part of the movie, I hate Randy just as much as Stephanie does because I know exactly how she feels. Stephanie can’t forgive Randy and neither can I.
And yet, oddly enough, I still care what happens to Randy. Randy is a former wrestling superstar, a guy who was big in the 1980s but now lives in a haze of obscurity and self-pity. He now wrestles on the weekend, works a demeaning job at a super market deli, and occasionally plays an old video game which features him as a character. His only real friend (and source of strength) is Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who knows what its like to get older in a profession dominated by the young.
Randy does have one final chance at a comeback, when he agrees to an exhibition fight against his former nemesis, a “villainous” wrestler known at The Ayatollah (Ernest Miller). (It’s interesting to note that, outside of the ring, “bad guy” Ayatollah seems to be everything that “good guy” Randy is not, i.e., responsible, stable, and content with his life.)
However, there’s one problem. Randy has a heart condition and he has been told that continuing to wrestle could kill him. Will Randy give up the only thing that he’s ever been good at or will Randy potentially sacrifice his life to have one last chance to hear the cheers of the crowd?
Randy Robinson is another one of director Darren Aronofsky’s obsessive protagonists, a character who is so obsessed with something that he’s sacrificed everything else to pursue it. Fortunately, Aronofsky is a master of making these type of characters sympathetic. Over the course of the film, Randy fucks up so much that you really are tempted to just give up on him but Aronofsky directs the film with such compassion and Rourke gives such a vulnerable and emotionally raw performance that you find yourself giving Randy another chance despite your better instincts. The film’s melancholy ending is effective because you know that it really is the only way that Randy’s story can end.
I’m always surprised to like The Wrestler.
But I do.