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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'The Wrestler': Triumph for Mickey Rourke?

September 8, 2008 | 11:09 am

FROM THE TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL:

In Darren Aronofsky's  "The Wrestler," Mickey Rourke is an over-the-hill grappler whose best days are way behind him. With his shoulder-length dirty blond curls, a fake tan and a scarred body bulked up on cheap steroids, he looks less like Gorgeous George than the dissolute leader of an '80s hair band gone to seed. The movie is loaded with cheesy '80s rock (think Ratt, Poison or Motley Crue), which blares out of Rourke's dinged-up van and the strip club where his friend Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) works as a pole dancer. But like Aronofsky's earlier "Requiem for a Dream," the film really has the soul of a '70s picture --it's about lost souls and beautiful losers. When Rourke and his aging wrestler pals show up for an autograph session, with their scars, prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs, they're truly the walking wounded--they look like a squadron of bedraggled Vietnam vets.

This is the movie the acquisition crowd in Toronto has been waiting to see, everyone clearing their schedules to be at the 6 p.m. premiere at the lovely old Elgin Theater. It was a packed house. The studio execs were all here, even Paramount production chief John Lesher, who wore a nice suit and gave me a warm but perhaps ironic hug, since I've made fun of him in the blog for hugging everyone in sight. (That's OK, John, we still appreciated it.) The Big Time critics were all safely ensconced in reserved seats--EW's Owen Gleiberman, NPR's John Powers and the one and only Elvis Mitchell. The film's stars were all on hand--Rourke, Tomei and a very Goth-like Evan Rachel Wood, who came with her boyfriend, Marilyn Manson, and earned a "Happy Birthday" serenade from a bunch of boisterous moviegoers, it being her 21st birthday.

Before the film began, the boyish-looking Aronofsky took the stage, wearing a crisp gray suit and tie that made him look like one of the young ad executives in "Mad Men." Clearly in good spirits, his movie having just won the prestigious Golden Lion in Venice, he heaped praise on Rourke, calling him "an eggshell--a fragile, beautiful human being." But of course I know what you really want to know--how's the movie? Here's my take:

It's hard to imagine that anyone came away disappointed. (See Todd McCarthy's rave in Variety here.)The film is brutal, but the brutality is there to remind us just how tawdry the life of a wrestler can be. Still, I had to hide my eyes during some of the fight scenes, even more so during the backstage sequences where a trainer tries to patch up Rourke after he's been repeatedly conked over the head with a metal chair or had his chest punctured with a staple gun. The blood definitely flows.

But the film also has a strange beauty to it, especially as we watch Rourke clumsily try to establish some kind of human connection, either with Tomei, who rarely lets down her guard, or with Wood, who's in no hurry to rekindle a dad-daughter relationship with one of the more unreliable fathers on the planet. The film even has some nice dry wit, especially when we see Rourke working his day job behind the deli counter, having to patiently put up with pushy old ladies who can't decide how much potato salad they want from him.

All in all, it's an amazing tour-de-force performance by Rourke, who can be unbelievably coarse and self-destructive one moment, touchingly sweet and soulful the next, as when he plays an old wrestler video game (that stars his Randy "The Ram" Robinson character) with one of the neighborhood kids. This isn't so far from the real Mickey Rourke, who when I last had dinner with him showed up at a hip Sunset Strip eatery cradling a tiny hairless dog, saying he was too fragile to leave at home. But even if Aronofsky's forlorn wrestler isn't so different from Rourke himself, it doesn't make the performance any less riveting. It's as if Rourke had finally found a vessel for all the raw talent he showed early on in movies like "Diner" and "Angel Heart" that had seemingly been tossed away by too many bad career choices and personal demons.

The film is also a big step forward for Aronofsky, who's always had tons of brilliant technique. With this film, he has a well-constructed story--written by Robert Siegel--that plays to his strengths. The symmetry of the two main characters is unmistakable. Both Rourke and Tomei perform very public jobs (stripping and wrestling) that are nasty and soulless, not to mention unhealthy, but they can't quite find the inner strength to quit.

As I reported earlier this morning, Fox Searchlight picked up the U.S. rights to the picture today, obviously with big plans to run an academy campaign centered around Rourke's performance. This film is clearly a challenge, but a challenge that could reap big rewards. In one of his low moments in the film, Rourke says "I'm just an old broken-down piece of meat." It's true, but watching him up on screen in "The Wrestler," you see an actor making a prime-cut comeback.

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