- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2008

“The Wrestler” has gotten a ton of buzz as awards season rolls around, more for Mickey Rourke’s transcendent individual performance than the picture as a whole. Mr. Rourke topped a number of critics’ lists, including that of the Washington Area Film Critics Association, and garnered a Golden Globe nomination; an Oscar nod is sure to follow.

The focus on Mr. Rourke is entirely justified - he immerses himself in the role of broken-down professional wrestler Randy “the Ram” Robinson with such ferocity it’s easy to forget that, once upon a time, he was the smooth-talking ladies man of “Diner” fame. Years of abuse - he spent a few years in the ‘90s as a real-life boxer - have radically altered his face. Simply put, he looks exactly like a guy nicknamed “the Ram” should look.

Randy’s a pug of a fighter, a one-time champ in a big-time professional-wrestling league whose glory has faded. He splits his time between unloading trucks at a local grocery store and fighting it out with other has-beens and never-weres in high school gyms. The money Randy pulls in is barely enough to keep the manager of the trailer park he calls home off his back.

The Ram’s a lonely guy, having alienated his family years ago by spending all his time on the road. The little human contact he has comes from Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a dancer at the strip club he frequents. Though she obviously has some affection for the slab of meat, Cassidy also knows their relationship must have professional boundaries.

Those barriers start to break down after Randy suffers a heart attack in the ring and reaches out to her for help in reigniting a relationship with his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Absent the roar of the crowd, Randy comes to realize just how empty his life has been. He doesn’t want to die an unloved bum in an unkempt trailer.

It’s a testament to Mr. Rourke’s talent that Randy’s life and attempted redemption never devolve into maudlin, unearned sentimentality. When he sheds a tear on the New Jersey shore as he sits next to Stephanie and ruminates on the wreckage of his life, it’s impossible not to sympathize with the heartfelt display.

His performance is aided by stellar supporting work from Miss Tomei, who turns in her second edgy, risky and breathtaking performance in as many years. This is a meatier role than 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and one that serves as a better showcase for her talents.

The real-life wrestlers who populate the film’s action sequences are another key addition. Culled from the same high school gyms that the Ram haunts, these working-class “jobbers” give the film a heightened sense of authenticity and a realism it otherwise might be missing. Don’t take my word for it; former WWE champion Mick Foley said last week at Slate.com that the wrestling scenes passed his “sniff test.”

“The Wrestler” is directed by Darren Aronofsky, though one wouldn’t be able to tell from the movie’s look. Mr. Aronofsky is known for his hyperstylized filmmaking - the hip-hop montages of “Requiem for a Dream” and “Pi,” the dreamlike space-faring of “The Fountain.” “The Wrestler,” however, has a much more naturalistic feel; the visual tics are gone as Mr. Aronofsky focuses the camera’s gaze on his actors and simply lets their heartbreak tell the story.

★★★½

TITLE: “The Wrestler”

RATING: R (Violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use)

CREDITS: Directed by Darren Aronofsky

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes

WEB SITE: http://www.thewrestlermovie.com