The Wrestler
Fox Searchlight
At the State

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

4.5 out of 5 Stars

Barry Levinson’s 1982 classic “Diner” is an ode to youth — a reflection on young adulthood and inevitable responsibility. Mickey Rourke stars as Boogie, a delinquent greaser who prefers Elvis to Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mathis. He’s the bad boy who reluctantly swallows his pride and achieves redemption. While the movie features a great cast of loveable goofs, Rourke is Levinson’s champion of defiant juvenescence.

This young, ceaselessly charismatic leading man with an effeminate touch is definitely not the same character that leads in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” In the new film, Rourke plays washed-up has-been Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Robinson is old, beaten, scarred and tired. To say the years haven’t been kind to him would be a gross understatement. That old cliché doesn’t even begin to paint the picture of the pitiable character Rourke inhabits.

If “Diner” is about holding onto the past as a nostalgic reflection, “The Wrestler” is a picture about the inability to overcome the past. Rourke’s Randy is a professional wrestler 20 years out of his heyday. The fans who once came in droves to watch him are now far fewer in number, gathering in hotel banquet halls and community centers. He remains intuitively in the guise of Randy “The Ram” — his real name is Robin — because he can hardly face the real world.

One of the most intriguing facets of Rourke’s performance is the undeniable and unsettling parallel between the down-and-out wrestler he plays and his own life. Randy is a commiserative soul who tries to make a professional comeback while simultaneously forging important personal connections with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, “Across the Universe”) and the stripper for whom he has fallen (a characteristically top-notch Marisa Tomei, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”). Rourke the actor was a star in the ’80s who made a series of poor personal and career choices that lead to his near disappearance from Hollywood. With “The Wrestler,” Rourke attempts to overcome the years of adversity that now define his career. It’s hard to say whether he will ultimately prevail, but he will surely leave a mark with this incomparably powerful performance.

“The Wrestler” also marks an important moment in the career of Aronofsky. The critical success of his 1998 “Pi” made him an indie wunderkind. His 2000 film “Requiem for a Dream” has enjoyed cult status since its initial release, while “The Fountain,” an ambitious 2006 triptych about immortality, alienated far more fans than it attracted. With “The Wrestler,” Aronofsky takes a half-step back, relinquishing total control and allowing the actors to bring his movie to life. It’s a mature film that suggests great things from Aronofsky in the future.

Additional recognition must be attributed to the hand-held camerawork from cinematographer Maryse Alberti. The rough, fractured feel of the film perfectly suits Randy’s story.

What prevents “The Wrestler” from being the year’s best film — though there’s no question that it is great — is its inability to evoke the emotional response it’s capable of. Aronofsky and Rourke work together to reveal the inner anguish of the human spirit. It’s heartbreaking, yes, but the script from Robert Siegel has a few too many conventions and the film doesn’t quite transcend the screen. That said, “The Wrestler” is still a remarkable film with touching performances.

Rourke has come full circle from “Diner,” emblemizing both youth’s reluctance to give way to responsibility and the sobering disappointments of wasted adulthood. Whether “The Wrestler” is his true resurrection or not is unclear. What is certain, however, is the strength of this role and its fidelity to a broken man.

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