If you follow movie hype, if you watch buzz from festivals and start to pick Oscar movies before you've seen the films (like I've been known to do), you've surely heard about The Wrestler. They've called it "a rare convergence of player and part," "the resurrection of Mickey Rourke," just to quote a couple of blurbs that made the trailer. Well-crafted film promotion is one of the few forms of advertising that blatantly works on me, and I found myself telling people I thought Rourke would win Best Actor before the nominations were released, before I'd seen a single movie that even would be nominated.
Well, now I have seen The Wrestler. And I've seen Milk, which, if you believe the hype, is The Wrestler's stiffest competition for Best Actor. And let me tell you: there is no contest. Not even a little.
Every inch of hype this movie has gotten is well-earned. I've been aware of Mickey Rourke for awhile, mostly as a background goon, and that actor who was a boxer for awhile. There were signs that he was returning to the big time with Sin City, but... well, that movie was what it was. It was a pure replication of the comic, and suffered the same unbelievability and absurd dialog that is the weakness of any Frank Miller comic. It proved that Rourke could still play lead in a box office draw, but not that he could still act.
The Wrestler puts any such doubts to rest. The quote "rare convergence of player and part" hits it dead on, I think. There are elements of Rourke's own character in the role: the star who is reduced to bit parts and sideshows; the athlete whose sport gets the better of him (Rourke suffered numerous head injuries as a professional boxer); and the craftsman who ultimately keeps doing his thing because it's what he does, what he loves doing. And whether it's because he feels that connection to the role, or simply because he really is a talented actor, Rourke brings every ounce of believable emotion to bear on the role.
Happily, the movie holds its own against Rourke. There has been more than one instance in recent memory (Capote and Last King Of Scotland spring immediately to mind) where the performance of the lead far outreached the film itself. In both of those films, the actors worked their parts to perfection, but the works as a whole left me unfulfilled. Simply the fact that Marisa Tomei is nominated for another Oscar here (regardless of what you think of the Academy) should speak to the quality of the remaining cast. Personally, I feel that Evan Rachel Wood's estranged daughter far outshines Tomei's run-down stripper in emotional range. And the construction of the film, with shaky handheld cameras and hasty edits, brings the vague sense of a documentary to the piece, in many ways cementing the character portraits throughout, and demonstrating director Darren Aronofsky's wealth of skill.
People have been calling this a comeback. Comeback isn't exactly the right word. Mickey Rourke never really went away. He faded from the spotlight, certainly, but continued to find regular work as an actor. But it is certainly a return to form, and rekindling of promise. And also just a frickin' great movie.
Tacomans (and our neighbors) can see The Wrestler until at least the 19th, I suspect longer (especially if it picks up the Oscar that following Sunday) at the Grand Cinema on 6th Ave and Fawcett, near downtown.