Another Movie Guy?: "The Wrestler," etc.

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

I will never, ever make fun of professional wrestling again. Sure it’s scripted, but these guys seriously beat the shit out of each other. Much has been written about Mickey Rourke’s performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. I was expecting a great performance (and got it), but I was not suspecting to see such brutal fight scenes. Like the main character’s signature move, this movie packs a whollop.

Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Rourke) should be a loser. He’s lost his fame, his youth, his wealth, his hearing, and his family. All that remains are his fans, and more importantly, his dignity. Still performing in small venues, Robinson relives his glory days. After a particularly hardcore bout, Robinson suffers a heart attack, and is told by doctors he must stop wrestling. Retirement means that Robinson must find purpose elsewhere, so he tries to win over his favorite stripper (Marisa Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). These three flawed people have old wounds that will never heal. After a hopeful moment is lost, a determined Robinson resolves to wrestle again. Because of health problems, the final bout pits Robinson not against his opponent, but himself.

Aronofsky abandons the flourishes that distinguish his previous work, and makes a movie grounded in realism. There are many shots that simply follow Robinson through his routine, which serve to establish rhythm and add to his dignity. The director also makes interesting comparisons between the stripper and the wrestler – both are over-the-hill and use their body for money. They remind themselves of who they are in an identical manner, and Clint Mansell’s score sustains a high note immediately preceding their key moments. Realism serves the movie especially well during the fight scenes. You feel each blow, and worry about Randy’s health. The second fight features broken glass and barbed wire. I spent much of the scene covering my eyes because dammit, it was still real to me. The observant screenplay by former Onion editor Robert Siegel also supplies interesting details about the sport. Even former wrestlers note that movie maintains a high level of verisimilitude. During the last fight, I was touched by the camaraderie between athletes who deliberately inflict pain on one another.

I have refrained from discussing the acting in the movie until now. Rourke simply disappears into the role, and made me feel like I was watching a documentary about Randy’s life. The lows are truly heart-wrenching, but the movie has some funny moments. One scene in particular, in which Randy awakens from a one-night stand, is bizarrely hilarious. Rourke delivers a great performance, and will assuredly earn him an Academy Award nomination. Marisa Tomei seems to only get more lovely with time, and even though we see plenty of her body, she’s far more alluring as a sensitive, vulnerable woman. The Wrestler reminds us that broken people carry on because they must. After spending time with Randy, it’s a message that won’t be easily forgotten.

Here are other movies in which a flawed man’s unexpected sexual transgression leads to unfortunate consequences:

Trees Lounge. Steve Buscemi made his feature debut with this story of a semi-functional alcoholic. Tommy (Buscemi) is an unemployed mechanic who spends his ample free time at a seedy dive. He performs stupid bar tricks, attempting to pick up strange women. His shameless behavior annoys the bartenders, who probably have seen his type before. To make ends meet, Tommy drives an ice cream truck around the neighborhood, which gives him an opportunity to converse with Debbie (Chloe Sevigny), who is about 17. Old enough to know better, the transgression occurs when Tommy and Debbie make out “like a couple of teenagers.” The unfortunate (but justified) consequence is that Debbie’s father kicks the shit out of the ice cream truck. In addition to comic scenes like this one, Trees Lounge offers a great view into the life of an alcoholic – the kind who is basically optimistic but ultimately a loser.

Sideways. Alexander Payne excels at satirizing ordinary people, and this examination of two middle-aged friends is him at his most sympathetic. The movie is a little too precious, and I have read theories claiming that it received undue praise because film critics, like the movie’s protagonists, are sad middle-aged men. Nevertheless, the movie’s funniest moment occurs when Jack (Thomas Haden Church), stark naked, returns to the room he’s sharing with Miles (Paul Giamatti). Jack announces that he left his wallet/wedding bands in the house of the chubby woman he just fucked. This puts Miles in a sticky situation: he must break into the house, and retrieve the wallet. For a movie full the kind of whiny bad behavior one associates with a mid-life crisis, this scene is a nice change of pace. It’s not compelling to watch grown men act like children. The dubious label of a “dick flick” does not help things. Perhaps if Payne skewered his characters as he did in About Schmidt, Sideways would have been more memorable.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Before he became Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr. played Harry in this endlessly quotable comedy/thriller. Through happenstance, Harry ships from NY to LA to star in a detective movie. There Harry runs into Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), a girl from his past. Their first meeting is an awkward, and it only gets worse. A drunk Harry “accidentally” sleeps with Harmony’s friend, and is caught red-handed. The plot is full of noir cliches, so the movie excels when it riffs on those  cliches and makes self-aware jokes. Harry narrates the movie, and apologizes for fucking up the story. He says he won’t end the movie a hundred times like Lord of the Rings. You get the idea. The best lines, however, come from Val Kilmer, who plays a character named Gay Perry (I must confess that I did not get the joke until I saw the movie a second time). In lieu of heaping more praise, I’m just going to post one of my favorite exchanges:

Perry: Did your dad love you?
Harry: Only when I dressed up like a beer bottle, how about you?
Perry: Well, he used to beat me in Morse code, so it’s possible, but he never said the words.

If you haven’t seen Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, go rent it. It’s fun to annoy your friends by quoting it endlessly.

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I am afflicted with suburban ennui.