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The Wrestler (2008): ***½

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

The Wrestler is a wonderful, heart-breaking film that surprisingly raises one of the most important existential questions ever asked. Hard to believe that a movie about a man who puts on tights and gets paid to be beat up could be so profound?

There's a philosophy that I like quite a bit (and that I've mentioned a few times on this website) that goes something like this: "Happiness is an organism efficiently doing its intended function." Lucky are those people who are able to find their function. Luckier still are those who have opportunity to do their function at maximum efficiency. Wretched are those who know their function but are unable to do it. And that is the question raised by this movie: how can you ever be happy again when you can't do the one thing in all the world that makes you happy?

Mickey Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, and he has been fortunate enough to not only find his function but to be able to do it as much as possible. His happiness is professional wrestling--strapping on tights and engaging in extreme physical activity for the purposes of entertainment. Randy was even more fortunate in that for a while he was at the top of his game: he was one of the most popular and well-love professional wrestlers in the world.

Lately he's fallen on hard times. Basically, his life is crap. He knows it's crap. He wasn't smart about his happiness; he focused so hard on the wrestling that he neglected everything else. He's living in a trailer that he can't afford. The only person he can really talk to is a stripper named Pam (Marisa Tomei), and he has to pay her for that luxury. He has a crappy job in a supermarket to try to scrape together enough money for steroids, tanning sessions, and hair dying sessions. He isn't taking care of himself at all. But he still wrestles. He still gets into that ring and gives it his all. And when he does, for those glorious few minutes he is happy, as happy as any man can ever be.

And then in a horrifying moment he is betrayed by the one thing that he needs most in order to wrestle: his horribly abused body revolts against its mistreatment. He has a heart attack. His doctor tells him that if he ever wrestles again he'll likely die. What can he do? Everything else in his life makes him miserable. He's never been any good at anything else. He's concentrated so hard on his wrestling that indeed it seems like he doesn't even know how to do anything else at all.

So he starts with painful and awkward steps to try to make some kind of life for himself. He reaches out to an estranged daughter. He tries to make an actual relationship with Pam. He doesn't know how to do either. And always looming over him is the pain of immeasurable loss. It's like the 6th season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you've been to Heaven but then forcefully ejected, how can the regular world feel like anything other than unbearable Hell? Can you ever be happy again?

Make no mistake--the bad stuff that happens to him is basically all his own fault, but that doesn't lessen his pain. Watching this broken mountain of a man struggle and stumble about, blindly groping for something, anything that he can hold onto to give him a little bit of happiness, while reaping the horrible consequences of his own decisions is wonderfully heartbreaking. But it is also at times very funny and surprisingly heartwarming and life-affirming. He's just such a lovable lunk that you can't help but feel sorry for him and want the best for him, and then agonize when he does something stupid and self-destructive. This is an astonishing performance by Mickey Rourke that justifiably won him a heap of awards.

And the movie is directed unflinchingly by Darren Aronofsky with an almost documentary style. There are many scenes throughout the movie where the camera is situated directly behind Randy and follows him as he walks through areas: from the locker room to the wrestling arena; from the employee break room at a supermarket to the deli counter where he tries to scrape together some money; from his old van to the front door of his daughter's house, etc. It's a wonderful device to show us the worlds through which this character moves, and the contrasts between them all, and how all they do is remind him of what he has lost, of what he should be doing right now.

If anybody sees this movie and thinks that the situation of Randy "The Ram" Robinson seems a little far-fetched, then I suggest you watch the documentary Beyond the Mat and see what happened some of the most popular wrestlers of the 1980s, especially people like Jake the Snake Roberts and Koko B. Ware.

P.S. The Ram's finishing move is the "Ram Jam," a flying headbutt off the top corner turnbuckle.

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