No clever lede here. The Wrestler is just an all-around terrific movie. I don’t even really care about the Mickey Rourke resurrection story. I’ve never seen any of the early films in which he showed much promise, only Sin City. In fact, it’s a little obnoxious that so much of the hoopla surrounding the film is centered on Rourke and his story instead of how great it is in total.

Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” reached his peak as a professional wrestler in the 80s and now works the local circuit in school gymnasiums and American Legion halls while scrimping up the rent for his trailer. Marisa Tomei’s Cassidy’s rise and fall isn’t as dramatic, but she depended on her body at the strip club and now that she’s older she’s losing out to younger girls. It’s a simple but devastating story of faded glories and the inability to let go. They know how to do one thing and keep at it, because what else are they going to do? They may be stuck in the past but what else do they have to stick to?

I think a little of the film’s impact was muted initially by the shock of the graphic wrestling scenes, but as time goes on it remains in my head. The fate of those who depend on their youth for their livelihoods and peak early is an interesting theme and one that I’ve often pondered in non-film settings. I’m always interested to hear what has happened to ex-athletes or faded entertainment stars, especially those who experienced a brief but substantial time in the spotlight: too short to be set for life but too long to simply return back to normalcy. The college hoops star is on top of the world at 22 but nothing at 42.

(And then there was that trip to a strip club not too long ago with that awkward older stripper who had trouble finding up dances. So she just circled the room, nude and sad. I felt so bad that when I turned her down I had to tell her it wasn’t her, I just didn’t want any dances from any strippers. But if I did, no, I probably wouldn’t have chosen her either.)

The Wrestler only landed two Oscar noms, for leading Actor Rourke and Supporting Actress Tomei. Both are very well-deserved and Tomei’s inclusion was one of my personal highlights for nomination morning (between this and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does she get any roles that don’t require her to be topless through half the film?). There’s not much I can say about Rourke that hasn’t been said- what a perfect actor to play a broken down piece of meat. But it really should have been in the running for more. Robert Siegel’s – whose other credit is The Onion Movie(!) – script creates wonderful characters and places them in some incredibly poignant moments, such as Randy’s good and bad days behind the deli counter at the grocery store or his devotion to an old wrestling Nintendo game and the local kid who humors him by playing with him. For a film with this pedigree and style it really could have played a part in Best Picture discussions but yet somehow did not.

Darren Aronofsky’s direction style puts us in the ring and nearly always hits the right notes. This guy’s had a heck of an early career. I hesitate to say he can do no wrong since I haven’t seen the polarizing The Fountain, but what a resume: The Wrestler is one of the best films of 2008, Pi is wonderful and odd, and the brilliant Requiem for a Dream is one of the best films of the decade.

And then there’s the case of perhaps the most puzzling snub of the year: Bruce Sprinsteen’s exclusion in the Best Song category. I don’t know what else you can ask for in a movie song. As Randy leaps from the ropes and the screen fades to black, the strums of Springsteen’s ode to the one trick pony and one-armed man punching at the breeze begins. It was so perfect thematically and tonally that it kept me glued to my chair through the credits. Commercials and trailers for the film backed with the song give me chills. It’s the best song on Springsteen’s pretty terrible new album and it’s one of my favorite songs of 2008. The Academy actually chose three very good nominees but none come close to “The Wrestler.”

Last year I hoped that The Savages wouldn’t be the little film to fall through the cracks of time and this year it’s The Wrestler for which I wish the same.

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