Friday, September 18, 2009

Film Friday: The Wrestler (2008)

When I first saw Darren Aronofsky’s π, I thought Aronofsky deserved watching. π was fresh and interesting, though ultimately unfulfilling. So when he did The Fountain, I was excited. Then I saw it. Then I saw it again, just to make sure it was as horrible as I’d remembered. It was. So, naturally, I went into The Wrestler with low expectations. They weren’t low enough. This film has nothing original to offer and even less to care about. The plot is clichéd and trite and the main character is pathetic and unlikeable. It is a pointless character study about a character we don’t care about. Even the directing is poor.

** spoiler alert **
The Plot Is Ultra-Clichéd
The Wrestler follows a few weeks in the life of a Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke). His life is pathetic and he knows it, but he can’t see himself doing anything else. Once famous, Randy now is washed up (sound familiar a hundred times over?) and is reduced to playing the local wrestling circuit to crowds that can be counted in the single digits. After a near death experience, Randy is told he can’t wrestle any more. Sensing his own mortality (though he really will only die if he wrestles), Randy goes to a strip club and confesses to aging stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) that he no longer wants to be alone. She advises him that, like all dying movie characters, he should make up with his estranged daughter.

Of course, that doesn’t go well at first. So he buys the daughter a gift, which naturally clears up 20 years of hate instantaneously. He then continues a halfhearted pursuit of the stripper. Cassidy resists his vile charms until she realizes her looks are fading. Suddenly, she decides to settle for trailer trash, drug addict Randy because he would make a good father to her son. She knows this because her son likes Randy’s action figure. But too late, she learns that Randy has -- and you will never see this coming -- decided to wrestle in one final match. Oh my!

So she hops in her car and speeds down state to save her dearly-be-settled. No sooner does she arrive, than Randy tells her he must wrestle. So she leaves, because that’s what you do when the person you want to settle down with wants to make a mistake. Randy/Rourke then breaks character and gives the audience a speech that carefully lays out Randy’s motivation -- because you probably didn’t pick this up when the plot was beating you over the head with it. He starts to wrestle, appears to have a heart attack, and then Aronofsky goes all film school creative on us, in ways that you haven’t seen in at least a couple weeks.
The Real Problem Lies In Randy’s Indifferent Character
Aside from the plot, the real problem with this film lies in Randy’s character. Randy is a man who makes bad decisions, has a pathetic life, and meets others who also make bad decisions. What's the message? Don’t make bad decisions. That’s it. What inspires you about Randy? Nothing. He doesn’t overcome any of the hurdles placed in his path, hurdles he places there himself. Nor does he display any sort of determination. Indeed, he seems to quit everything he starts at the first sign of resistance. Nor does he display virtuous traits, like loyalty, a sense of duty, honor, kind heartedness in the face of adversity. To the contrary, his every action shows he doesn’t care about anyone but himself.

So maybe he’s not meant to be inspirational. Maybe he’s tragic? Hardly. According to Aristotle, a tragedy results in a catharsis, an emotional cleansing or healing experienced by the audience as a result of the sympathy they feel for the suffering endured by the character(s). But there is no catharsis here. We can’t feel for Randy's suffering because it’s all self-inflicted by the bad decisions he makes. And, more importantly, those bad decisions aren’t the result of some tragic flaw. He knows full well he's making bad decisions, he's just decided the temporary benefits of the bad decision outweigh the future suffering. How can we feel sympathy for him? The simple fact is nothing about Randy is inspirational or tragic, and there is no lesson to be learned.
The Other Characters Aren't Any Better
The other characters give us nothing to latch onto either. Indeed, despite the attempt to give them depth, the female characters are little more than set pieces that give Randy something to do as he waits for his final match.

The daughter subplot is ridiculous and phony. The daughter hates him because he abandoned her. So he shows up to tell her he had a heart attack. This only makes her hate him more. Ok, so far so good. But rather than explore how this affects Randy, Aronofsky just has him bring her a gift (a coat), and suddenly twenty years of hate is washed away. Really? But since a relationship with the daughter could complicate the ending, Randy bizarrely alienates her again when he blows off his first dinner with her so he can do cocaine with a groupie (something out of character for a man who has been shown to be very reliable about appointments). So twenty years of hate is washed away by the giving of a simple coat, but is brought back by missing one dinner?

The stripper’s subplot is nonsensical as well. It’s clear Cassidy doesn’t see Randy as more than a regular customer. She likes him, but appears repulsed by him on a personal level. So he throws a little rage at her -- sufficient to get him tossed out of the strip club. Suddenly, she decides, “this might be the man I want to settle down with to help raise my nine year old son.” Who knew rage was such a turn on? Further, having decided that Randy is the man of her dreams, she drives to southern New Jersey in the dead of night to stop him from wrestling. But when he refuses to stop, after her half-hearted attempt to stop him, she simply walks away. Why? Because she’s only in this film to let Randy explain what’s on his mind to the audience, there is no real possibility of a romance.

And frankly, we can’t even feel that he’s lost anything in either of these relationships. Not only do neither the daughter nor the stripper offer him any sort of realistic, worthwhile relationship, but he doesn’t even seem to care that he’s lost either. He’d rather blow off what should be the most important dinner of his life to do blow with a groupie. And he’d rather blow off the woman he's been wooing than give up one final night of wrestling -- in front of a crowd of maybe 100 people? If he doesn’t care, why should we?
Even The Director Offers Us Nothing
We can’t even look to the “film craft” for anything redeeming. The Fountain was a pretentious turd, but at least it was interestingly shot. This isn't? Aronofsky does nothing original or interesting, and he can’t even remain consistent. For example, he begins the movie with a documentary feel, by having the camera following Randy down various hallways as he makes his way to the ring -- something you’ve seen before in every other movie that ventured back stage, e.g. Spinal Tap. But Aronofsky then drops this style until he seems to remember it half way through the film when the camera follows Randy at his day job -- at a meat counter. He then forgets it again, even when Randy returns to the ring for his final match. Aronofsky also uses a series of cheap tricks that stick out like a sore thumb. For example, when things are going well for Randy, the scene suddenly becomes more brightly lit. When things turn sour, the scene darkens. This is most apparent in a scene where he attempts to reconcile with his daughter, where the sunlight itself fades as she lays into him. It’s all been done before and it feels cheap and manipulative.
So Why Did The Critics Love This Film?
The critics almost universally loved The Wrestler, at least that’s what they claimed; it made most of their Top 10 lists for 2008. But if you read their reviews, you will find they didn’t really like the movie so much as they liked the parallel of Mickey Rourke completing a comeback. The words of Roger Ebert are typical:
This is the performance of [Rourke’s] lifetime. It will win him a nomination, may win him the Oscar. Like many great performances, it has an element of truth. Rourke himself was once young and glorious and made the big bucks. He did professional boxing just for the hell of it. He alienated a lot of people. He fell from grace and stardom, but kept working, because he was an actor and that was what he did. Now here is his comeback role, playing Randy the Ram's comeback.

I cared as deeply about Randy the Ram as any movie character I've seen this year. I cared about Mickey Rourke, too. The way this role and this film unfold, that almost amounts to the same thing. Rourke may not win the Oscar for best actor. But it would make me feel good to see him up there. It really would.
The Wrestler is one of those movies that rode the wave of the events surrounding the movie. This was the dramatic role that would crown Rourke’s comeback, and the critics were happy to be a part of that. If Nicholas Cage had played Randy the Ram, as was originally intended, this movie would have been panned by these same critics. And as the spell of Rourke’s comeback fades again, I suspect this movie will be long forgotten.

Don't bother with this one.


USArtguy said...

Another good article, Andrew, as usual.

Often I see/read/listen to the opposite of what critics don't like and avoid what they do. Haven't seen this but it seems like it fits my profile for doing the opposite of what the critics say.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks USArtguy. The problem with the critics are that they often aren't looking at the same things you and I are. They aren't looking at whether or not a movie is any good so much as is it artistic or is it politically correct to like/hate a film. (And they have a huge herd mentality.)

Rourke does give a very realistic performance, and that's worth something, but as a film, this is a waste of time. It's pure cliche, it has fake depth and it ultimately lacks an emotional impact.

And if you start reading the reviews, it's truly interesting how much they blur Rourke and Randy, and how much of Rourke's story they read into the movie. Half the reviews I read spent more time creating backstories for Randy that weren't to be found in the movie than they did considering the plot itself.

Writer X said...

Andrew, I did not love this movie, although I didn't dislike it as much as you.

I couldn't agree more about the cliches; however, this was a little more raw, a little more real, than say The Rocky movies. I did feel sympathy for Randy (e.g. when he adjusted his hearing aid) and wanted to know what happened to him; I, too, got irritated when he kept making the same obviously bad life decisions. But I felt sympathy for him because I don't think he knew how to make good decisions. He never had. That was part of his character. I also thought Rourke played him so well, probably because, in this case, life very much imitated art.

Cassidy's character--very cliched--although I thought Tomei did a good job. I almost despise the single-mom-turns-stripper character as much as I despise vampires. The daughter? Not well developed and very cliched.

But I think that's one of the problems with the film, other than Randy, we only got to see the surface of the characters. I wanted the layers of the onion pulled back a little more. No one was sufficiently developed and that's why I sat in my living room shaking my head when the credits started playing.

I think it's worth a rental but I probably won't remember it in two years.

BTW, I have not seen THE FOUNTAIN but I have some friends who think it's great. Sounds like it's not worth a rental?

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I agree that the film was more raw than most sports films, but I think they just substituted rawness for story. In a way, it was the dramatic equivalent of a slasher flick -- all blood, no plot. Same thing here, all misery, but no depth.

And I think the reason the film was unable to give any layers is because that would have put Aronofsky into unchartered territory, and he was trying to stay very close to the clichés for whatever reason.

The Fountain is one of the most pretentious movies I've seen in a long, long time -- not to mention entirely pointless and incredibly dull. It almost reminds me of a Warhol movie. It's the kind of movie that people who like it, like to walk around telling everyone else that they must not have "understood it." But that's the joke -- there's nothing to understand. The film is stunningly shallow, the plot is nonexistent and jumbled nonsense, the chracters shallow, and the depth is phony symbolism and long, pointless moments of silence posing as meaning.

The movie was so bad that the critics boo'd it when it was first shown, and it grossed a total of $15 million world wide, despite a really good cast (Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz).

Writer X said...

Andrew, very true. A raw story still needs sufficient layers. Aronofsky does seem to make a habit out of making movies with one-dimensional characters. Not sure if this is laziness or an expectation that the audience is supposed to know what it doesn't know. Think I'll pass on THE FOUNTAIN.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I don't know what his problem is because Pi showed so much promise. And visually, The Fountain had some great images (though they were all CGI and he may have had little do with them).

To give you more on The Fountain, this is the movie:

Film a thirty minute segment about Jackman the Conquistador trying to find the Mayan tree of life to save Weisz (the Queen of Spain). Film a thirty minute segment about Jackman the research scientist trying to find a cure for brain tumors using bark from the tree of life to save Weisz. Film a thirty minute segment of Jackman traveling (in a giant plastic bubble) with the tree to a distant nebula (to save the tree he's been eating) because he thinks the nebula is the Mayan underworld.

Alternate between the three segments whenever the editor gets bored with the current scene.

Go forth and do interviews telling people that this is one of the deepest films you've ever worked on, and that it's meant as an allegory for Genesis or the Mayan story of creation. . . see, it has a life giving tree.

Writer X said...

OMG, The Fountain sounds like a snore. And a warped out version of THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE. I hate those supposedly "artsy films" where the only one who understands them is (maybe) the filmmaker.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I agree. I have nothing against artistic, but I can't stand fake art.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I take it you didn't like the movie? I'm glad I read your review. From what little I saw in previews, I suspected that the movie didn't match up with what the critics were saying. This confirms it. I've always found Rourke kinda creepy anyway, as early as Diner. And then there's that dog . . . .

ArmChairGeneral said...

I will forgo the movie. Thanks for the review Andrew. I have to watch Valkyrie tonight.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I have liked Rourke in some of his roles and not in others. He does do a good job as Randy the Ram, there is no doubt about that. It's just that the rest of the film doesn't give him much to work with.

ACG, I haven't seen Valkyrie yet, but I hear it is actually quite good.

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