Sunday, February 15, 2009

"The Wrestler"



A lot has been written about Darren Aronofsky's THE WRESTLER lately. Most of it has focused, rightly so, on Mickey Rourke's Oscar-nominated performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a battered-but-not-quite-beaten '80s wrestling star. I finally caught up with the film this week and it's really stuck with me the last few days. Some quick notes:

+ Excellent and evocative use of New Jersey locations. As bleak and depressing as they appear in this winterset drama, they're immediately recognizable to anyone who's spent much time in the state. A handful of scenes were shot on the Asbury Park boardwalk (see photo above) and neighboring streets. Due to redevelopment efforts, the area looks a lot better now than it did when the film was shot, though that's not saying much (there's also a scene inside the gutted structure that was once the Casino's carousel house). You see a lot of Garfield, Elizabeth, Linden and Rahway as well - not exactly the most attractive spots of the Garden State, but perfect for the film. When the Ram gets out of the hospital after his heart attack early in the film, it's Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. Aronofsky's from Brooklyn, but you wouldn't know it. He chose his Jersey locations like a native.

+ An authentic feel to the backstage scenes among the wrestlers, many of whom are played by actual pros. One of the wonderful things movies can do is take you behind the scenes into worlds you wouldn't normally have access to, and THE WRESTLER is one of the best examples of this. The camaraderie among the wrestlers, the respect they show each other as fellow performers, even in the dingiest of venues, feels real.

+ There is not a second in the film when you doubt Rourke's performance. He brings a lot of life experience to the role and it shows. From the pumped-up physique to his battered and distorted face, Rourke has clearly gone the distance for this. Cliches aside, it is the role of lifetime. And if he doesn't take home the Oscar for it, there is no justice in the world.

+ The unnaturally pale Evan Rachel Wood (seen above), as the Ram's estranged daughter Stephanie, doesn't have a lot of screen time, but she goes toe-to-toe in her scenes with Rourke and meets the challenge every time. She shifts from dismissive coldness to second-thought skepticism to grudging affection to vulnerability in a way that never seems forced. And she brings it all home in a display of white-hot female anger that's almost frightening.

+ Which brings us to the other main female role, Marisa Tomei as a stripper and single mom with the stage name of "Cassidy." Complex, charming, troubled, sexy and conflicted as they come, Tomei's Cassidy is possibly the most true-to-life representation of a stripper in a major film ever. She works hard in the role, and she looks great doing it (the strip club scenes, filmed at Cheeques in Linden, are also dead-on accurate). To judge from some of her other recent films, such as FACTOTUM and BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, Tomei, at 44, has no qualms about getting naked on screen physically as well as emotionally. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

+ And of course, there's the Bruce Springsteen song which plays over the closing credits, and which you can hear in the trailer below.

In its last 30 minutes, THE WRESTLER almost seems like it's going to turn into a hokey sports movie. And then it doesn't. Its slightly ambiguous ending may bother some, but in retrospect it feels like the only way it could have ended. This film - and those characters - linger in your mind long after you've left the theater.

11 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

We just loved this movie and spent a lot of time trying to place where in Asbury Park the shambles of what looked like a dancehall was. Thanks for the insight. I think it was the best movie of the year, but maybe it's because we spent years living in New Jersey.

Jmags said...

I agree with all your comments on "The Wrestler" and I don't really want to repeat what you said. It was a great film, and Rourke really should win the Best Actor Oscar. The attention to detail was great. The best example of this was the opening credits. They seamlessly put Rourke's character into 1980s era wrestling magazines. That opening montage was perfectly done. I thought the daughter was a little selfish and unforgiving in her last meeting with her father. I understand her anger at the past, but the guy was trying.

Wrestlers from the 1980s are still seen doing the NJ wrestling circuit. Names like King Kong Bundy, Tony Atlas, and others. The wrestling scene with the glass, bats and nails is really another "extreme" side of wrestling that, thankfully, is not really that popular.

Anyhow, Micky Rourke should accept the award with Greg "The Hammer" Valentine and Paul "Mr Wonderful" Orndoff.

ps - I sure wouldn't want to shop at that Acme supermarket.

wstroby said...

pattinase (abbott) said...
We just loved this movie and spent a lot of time trying to place where in Asbury Park the shambles of what looked like a dancehall was. Thanks for the insight.

Yes, Rourke and Wood dance in the gutted shell of what used to be a combination carousel/funhouse on the boardwalk, part of the Casino structure, built in 1929 (there's a line in Springsteen's "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" where "the boys from the Casino dance with their shirts open/Like Latin lovers along the shore").
The massive beachside end of the structure, originally a dance hall and skating rink, then a concert venue in the '80s, was demolished in 2006.

wstroby said...

Jmags said...
ps - I sure wouldn't want to shop at that Acme supermarket.

Do they even have Acmes in New Jersey anymore? There hasn't been one in Monmouth County in a good 20 years.

Jmags said...

There is an Acme on Long Beach Island. That's where we would shop while on vacation.

Anonymous said...

its not the robert wood johnson in new brunswick... i work there and it doesn't look like that. its probably rahway or maybe hamilton

wstroby said...

Anonymous said...
its not the robert wood johnson in new brunswick... i work there and it doesn't look like that. its probably rahway or maybe hamilton

That stands to reason,since parts of the film were shot in Rahway.
I'll correct. Thanks.

Paul Guyot said...

I agree with you on most everything except...

Tomei's "possibly the most true-to-life representation of a stripper..."

Unfortunately, and for various reasons, I have many years of personal experience in and around strippers. "In strippers?" Okay, scratch that.

Anyway, this stripper role (like most others in film) is a romanticizing of the vocation. We all want to believe strippers are hard-working single moms just doing what they have to to get by.

Could not be further from the truth. The reality is that perhaps as much as 95-98% of all working strippers are not this complex, charming or sexy. They are young girls, a high percentage with drinking and/or dope issues, that are stripping because it is easy money.

They are not putting themselves through college, or doing it for any other altruistic reason.

They're stripping because they are lazy, and/or fucked up, and/or because they just dig it. Yes, I have met the exceptions, but they are that - exceptions, and rare ones.

Tomei's representation was the only inauthentic thing in the film for me. Not her performance - which was outstanding. It's actually not even Tomei's fault, but an issue with the script - the character was written this way, the way we all like to imagine strippers to be.

wstroby said...

There's certainly some cliched aspects to Tomei's character, but what I admired about her performance - and what I thought was very true to life - was that she was more (and less) than just a stripper/single mom with a heart of gold. She's totally mixed up, even in her most basic dealings with people. She's not sure what she wants, or even who she is. She's always giving mixed signals, not out of malice but out of her own internal confusion. She won't go out for a drink with him, then she does, then she has to leave, then she decides to stay ... etc etc. She's as much of a performer as he is, but he's more self aware. He knows who he is and hates it. She's not sure who she is, and hates not knowing. I think Tomei really picked up that ambiguity and brought it to the surface in a way that felt real. And though it may not be a "true-to-life representation" of the majority of strippers in general, I think it's a very accurate representation of that particular type of woman in that situation.

Of course, it's always risky to characterize any group based on generalizations either way. Certainly some of the current stripper blogs would take issue with it. And I think geography is involved as well. Here at the Jersey Shore these days, 95% of the dancers at local clubs seem to be Russian or slavic - very aggressive and all business.

Anonymous said...

"Do they even have Acmes in New Jersey anymore? There hasn't been one in Monmouth County in a good 20 years."

Last time I checked, the Acme in Manasquan is still open for business.

wstroby said...

You're right! Though I don't think I knew that at the date of this posting. I'd been thinking especially of the ones in West Long Branch and Belmar. which are long closed. Someone actually has a blog dedicated to abandoned Acme locations: http://bit.ly/pcPBqE