Wednesday, 24 June 2009

THE WRESTLER: Oscar Catch-Ups Continue

The Wrestler is a film with a lot of similarities to Slumdog Millionaire (see previous post) but one huge difference. Both are films about outcasts, although their arcs are opposite: Randy 'the Ram' Robinson has once been a huge star, and is now existing on the fringes of society, while Jamal in Slumdog works his way out of the fringes to that 15 minutes of fame (and wealth) 'reality' TV promises every zombie who watches it. Their sub-cultures are outside the cinema-goers mainstreams as well; Randy's world of small-time, extreme wrestling is as alien to most Western audiences as the slums of Mumbai. The both love a woman who is the 'property' of men with more money to spend, and they both have a problematic relationship with their family: Jamal's brother takes advantage of him numerous times; Randy has abandoned his daughter.

The big difference, however, is while Slumdog takes an original idea (cuing flashbacks from the questions of the quiz show) and fills it with cliches drawn from films and from our perceptions of India, The Wrestler starts with a cliched story, about the redemption of a fallen sports hero, but avoids, for the most part, surrendering to the cliches. It's helped by the hand-held, documentary feel, which emphasizes both the weirdness of Randy's wrestling world, in which he is still a king, and his 'real' world, living in a trailer on which the rent is always due, working on a supermarket loading dock, and spending his free time with a lap-dancer. The New Jersey setting is as bleak, cold and washed out as Slumdog's Mumbai was bright, warm, and edgy.

Aaronofsky pulls no punches in his portrayal of wrestling's minor leagues: the Necro Butcher stapling a dollar bill to his own forehead, or using a fork to draw blood, the various steroid and other freaks who gather in the high school locker rooms, are all part of the same reality that sees Randy demonstrate 'blading' himself for the movie audience. Welcome to his world. The camaraderie of the wrestlers, the dreams of the big time, the dependence on drugs, the small-time payoffs for big-time effort are all shockingly, and depressingly real. And so is the quiet boredom of the wrestlers sitting around their huckster tables at a 'fan fest' waiting for a few marks to pay for having a Polaroid taken with their heroes.

Although wrestling is the heart of the film, it's in the relationships with the two women in his life that Randy's world is defined. His shambling efforts to effect a reconciliation with his daughter are touching, and his throwing the opportunity away for a night with a young woman who's not even really a fan, just impressed by his former celebrity, brings the start of self-awareness. But it's the pursuit of Cassidy, the lap-dancer who eventually reveals herself to him as 'Pam', a single-mother trying to make a living, that defines Randy for himself and for us. Director Darren Aronofsky makes the parallels between the two forms of entertainment obvious, but their attitudes to their jobs are completely different; Pam won't be fooled by the cheap glamour of her role. The point is driven home again, when, after his heart attack, Randy makes an effort to go straight, and moves to the deli counter of the supermarket. His walk through the bowels of the store mirrors his walk to the wrestling ring, and for a short while his natural ability as an entertainer sees him through.

In the end though,the biggest mark for wrestling is Randy himself. Randy, we learn, is not even his real name; he is 'The Ram', and that's where he's most real. That he prefers to live in the fantasy is the most real part of this film, and it's why in the end, it's far more moving than the more superficially attractive Slumdog.

And, of course, there's Mickey Rourke's performance. Having not yet caught up with Milk, I can't compare it directly with Sean Penn's, but from the clips and trailers, I am guessing that Penn's ability to stay in character, to catch the nuances of Harvey Milk, impressed the voters more than the sense that Rourke was, in fact, in character. Not playing his own character, as John Wayne did, say, in True Grit, but playing himself, the entertainer who spend a long time out of the major leagues. He gets good support, although one still gets the sense that Marisa Tomei, who surely deserved her Oscar nomination--though in a sense Hollywood tends to reward roles as working-class people the same way they do playing the disabled--seems at least as interested in displaying to producers that she still has the chops to do her lap dancing, and I don't say this facetiously, because she did the same thing in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (so it must be working), as she is in exploring the Pam moments (as opposed to the Cassidy moments) of her character. But Evan Rachel Wood clearly relishes her few moments alone with Rourke, her character's tentative reaction to finding, or thinking she'd found, the person underneath the wrestling persona. In that sense, she stands in for the audience, or at least that part of the audience that feels betrayed when Randy the Ram follows his fantasy.

1 comment :

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think this was the best movie of last year. It had the most resonance six months later. And it was the most surprising in creating a character that was multi-faceted. He shot himself in the leg by making homophobic remarks, I think, at other award ceremonies.