Perhaps you think you understand machismo. Possibly, possibly — but do you know what being a man is about? Here, allow me to tell you some of what I know of it: Being a man is about doing your own dishes, tying your own shoes, and minding your own business. It’s about being kind and polite. It’s about never hitting anybody – ever. It’s about being able to spend the night alone without being a useless baby about it. It’s about being good not only to your family, but to all families. And it’s about being honest, intelligent, creative, friendly and fair.
There may be a code of ethics in the realm of pro-wrestling — and I direly do not wish to offend those who participate in, or are obsessive about, this particularly bewildering performance art — however, whatever it is, I don’t get it, I’ve never gotten it, and I never will get it. (The only things I ever even remotely liked about this freakish subculture were the very entertaining Carl Reiner movie, The One and Only — plus Roddy “Piper” Toombs’ turn in John Carpenter’s hella amusing They Live. That’s it — nothing else.) However, from viewing Darren Aronofsky’s ridiculously unpleasant new tantrum, The Wrestler, I am sadly reminded that a lot of people seem to believe that being a man entails hostility, hideous violence, shocking stupidity and sheer ugliness. For whatever considerable “passion” or “grit” exists in this movie (they certainly ate it up in Venezia), it is essentially cinéma as toilet. Thanks a bunch, Darren. Please return to film school (try Subtlety 101) – or at least take some humanities courses at your local community college.
I went to film school with director James Gray — another Jewish New Yorker wunderkind who for years delighted in displaying human degradation in the most obnoxious, bombastic ways he could conceive — but these days even he has figured out how to be Entertaining without relentlessly punishing his audience. (In real life, he’s funny; more comedy, James! Appear in it!) Aronofsky, though — ick. I feel like he owes me some money for sitting through both The Wrestler and that oh-so-clever one about the junkies. What are you trying to do, Darren? You want to rub our noses in utter dreck for 105 minutes? Have you no consideration for your audience? Wouldn’t therapy be a lot cheaper?
Not that many reading this will need a plot summary, but The Wrestler is essentially a thin retread of The Champ (King Vidor or Zeffirelli; but it would’ve been extra-cool to cast both Voigt father and daughter!) by way of hair-metal and, obviously, pro-wrestling (shouldn’t this movie have been called “The Pro-Wrestler”?). An unconvincing latex mannequin of Mickey Rourke plays the titular burnout, a grunting pig in Goldilocks tresses who follows all the extremely obvious plot-points (constant self-abuse/self-aggrandisement, failed “romance,” failed heart, failed fatherhood, failed everything) in Bob Siegel’s plodding, boring, by-the-numbers screenplay. Twenty years after his peak in the nifty ’80s opening title montage, Robin “Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson” Ramzinski (latex Rourke) is reduced to a broke and broken caricature of himself — and now we get to watch, and is it ever ugly and pathetic. Sheesh.
Even though I think that Guys Hurting Each Other For Money Or Sport is third only to War and Obsession With Tiny Dogs in terms of intolerable human stupidity, I am okay with the subject matter of any film or story — as long as it is delivered with intelligence. The Wrestler — while undeniably energetic — is delivered mostly with insolence, toward us. There was a young woman sitting next to me, cringing throughout; and I was right there with her. It genuinely saddens me that people are going to be calling this movie “great.” (And it’s even worse that some critics are referring to “Ram” as “a good guy” — let’s see: junkie; drug-dealer; moron; inexcusably terrible father; possible wife-murderer — yeah, real good.)
Really, all that happens here is that Ram “fights” in three protracted and almost supernaturally hideous bouts (note to the squeamish: there is a LOT of sadism and blood), falls in “love” with a stripper who claims she’s not a stripper (Marisa Tomei; weirdly into yucky nudity), and very unconvincingly goes way up and way down with his understandably estranged lesbian daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, all lousy histrionics in a mediocre-soap-opera performance). In the middle, he gets staples removed from his back in gory close-up, spits up realistically, suffers a heart-attack, and then — just shy of showing us the inside of his urethra via fibre-optics (gotta save a stunt for the next movie, eh, Darren?) — Aronofsky gives us a gander through the hospital gown at Rourke’s butt-crack. Oh, I get it: He’s vulnerable! The incessant close-ups of his granny glasses and hearing-aid didn’t quite put that across! Gee, thanks again!
Is there anything good about The Wrestler? Well, there’s something good about any movie — but here the vulgar approach nearly eclipses the movie’s meagre strengths. There’s a strong scene wherein the pathetic Ram attempts to cajole a local trailer-park kid into playing his “really old” wrestling videogame of himself (albeit with puzzling Donkey Kong sound effects). There’s even more pathos in a scene at an American Legion hall, where burnt-out ex-pros outnumber their fans for a crappy-Poloroid meet’n’greet — with their unsold glory-days VHS screeners looming on their tables like eager tombstones. There’s another strong scene wherein Tomei’s denial-plagued stripper “Cassidy” (real name: Pam) agrees to meet Ram (aw, that woulda been cute: Ram ‘n’ Pam) to help him buy a gift for his daughter. And when Ram is forced to have a go at the straight-and-narrow via working the deli at the local double-coupon supermarket, the results (featuring the director’s parents; economical casting!) are predictable but mostly human and hilarious. Most hilarious of all is the lurid little “fireman” scene — the only great giggle in the movie, and of course Aronofsky immediately punishes his characters, and us, for enjoying a moment of mirth.
Actually, if Nicolas Cage (generally a high-concept performer, whose only downward-spiral parallel is Leaving Las Vegas) had taken this role as allegedly originally envisioned, The Wrestler might have revolved around such entertaining scenes — rather than merely around Aronofsky crapping in our faces for 95% of it. In this “indie” (shyeah, right!) version with Rourke (who claims he wrote or re-wrote most of the non-clichéd material), these scenes are but modestly refreshing oases, showcasing the actor’s potential in the filmmakers’ otherwise dull wasteland of squalor and slop (Ram is a guy who can’t even make a telephone call without first finding the absolute ugliest payphone locations in the state of New Jersey). Rare is the movie which can make me feel pity for actors — but this one does.
Granted, during our current digital revolution of shocking self-absorption and hermetically-sealed online identities, it is likely that many will find in The Wrestler some modicum of humanity (though mostly through cheap ghastliness and misery). As I’ve stated, I don’t know about pro-wrestling, nor do I care to know (all I took away from this picture is that people use staple guns [!] on each other, and that Ram’s first onscreen opponent looks like a Goth chick gone horribly awry) — but I do know this and that about cinéma; and as many writers, directors and performers have proven, in decades before this grisly, joyless age of The Dark Knight and The Wrestler and whatever, it really isn’t necessary to bludgeon your audience like some petulant, power-crazed adolescent in order to summon strong feelings from them.
Lighten up, boys.
Which, in turn, causes me to reflect upon a Catholic New Yorker wunderkind by the name of Scorsese — who is of course renowned for his various cinématic bludgeonings. Over a quarter-century ago, he made a movie very similar to The Wrestler — called Raging Bull. I should tell you: I hate Raging Bull. I think Raging Bull sucks. Once was more than enough. But before aficionados of Guys Hurting Each Other For Money Or Sport movies get too peeved, I ask that they consider: Entertainment and personal taste aside, is there really anything to be learnt about manhood from watching (or, for an elite and adolescent few, making) ugly, pathetic, mean-spirited movies? Or? — is this inexplicably huge sub-stratum of cinéma merely the province of the pathetic little geek who wishes he could be a man.
Entertainment Value: 2/13
Philosophical Insight: 2/13