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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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Darren Aronofsky’s first three feature-length films all elicited a very visceral reaction from me.  I watched Pi in AP Stats and found it sublimely confusing; it was exciting to realize a movie could be so off the wall and yet so compelling.  Requiem for a Dream is nearly unwatchable.  I was bored out of my gourd.  The Fountain, on the other hand, is probably one of my favorite movies of all time.  The three movies, of course, are exceedingly different, so I didn’t really know what expectations I should have going into The Wrestler.  Strangely, while the film is different in style and tone from its predecessors, it is much more accessible and yet (or maybe therefore) had much less of an impact on me.

Maybe it isn’t surprising that The Wrestler sticks out among Aronofsky’s work.  It is the only film he didn’t write himself, Robert D. Siegel gets the credit for this one.  And the story has a much more linear feel than Aronofsky’s earlier films.

That’s not to say I disliked The Wrestler.  I liked it just fine, I guess I was hoping to be a bit more affected.  The main character, Mickey Rourke’s Randy the Ram, is certainly compelling in theory.  Once at the top of the professional wrestling world, he now ekes out a living doing third-rate shows in fourth-rate towns, doing promotional signings in rec centers with over the hill wrestlers, and supplementing it all with a job hauling stuff at a local supermarket.  He lives (when he can make the payments) in a rented trailer, and the only person with whom he can have a conversation seems to be his favorite stripper at a random joint.  He’s a sad person, someone who lives and breathes and is only good for one thing, and he’s no longer supposed to do that.

In my mind, though, Aronofsky and Rourke dehumanize The Ram.  He’s unable to have prolonged interactions with other people.  He can’t maintain a relationship with his daughter.  Can’t hold a steady job.  His life has become professional wrestling.  Not in the sense that he’s obsessed with it, rather that’s just who he is and what he was made for, like a machine built for a certain task, he was made to wrestle.  Even his nickname, “The Ram”, acts to dehumanize him.  And I’d argue that this dehumanization leads to a certain inevitability about The Ram’s path.  So it is hard to feel badly for The Ram’s failures at life outside of professional wrestling any more than a Roomba’s life outside vacuuming.  It may be tragic he was molded into a machine, but I’m not sure there’s anything inherently sad about a machine doing what it does until it can no longer go.

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