You know how, even if you know a Springsteen song is rote, it doesn’t matter? Like when you hear the first verse, and it’s about how “[Joey] lost his job at the [docks/car plant/box factory]” and “[Mindy] got pregnant” that same week and “[Joey’s] smokin’ a cigarette and [embodying blue-collar America]… dah dah dah.” And you know it’s just Bruce slapping all the clichés together… that all his songs sound the same and you really should’ve quit listening after Born to Run. But you well-up anyway. That’s what watching The Wrestler is like. It’s not the song; it’s the voice. We’re all suckers for Bruce.
Mickey Rourke plays a pro-wrestler who once entertained the masses. Hard times have come. Now he’s playing to clumps. He’s got a hearing-aid, heart trouble and an estranged, angry daughter. He dotes on a stripper but she don’t dote on him. Work –the paying kind, the kind that pays him Monday through Friday – means stacking crates. Even his favourite video game is twenty years out of date. But help comes: he has a heart attack. He decides to try to change his life; be a good dad; stop wrestling… dah dah dah. But this is a Springsteen song, not Barry Manilow. Rourke’s lucky if he makes it to the chorus.
“Isn’t he just playing himself?” someone asked me (of Rourke). And yes, he is. But that still means he’s playing Mickey Rourke. This isn’t The Judge Reinhold Story. To play Mickey Rourke (even if you are Mickey Rourke) is pretty demanding: you have to be stoic, colourful, scary… lost. It’s like Rourke spent his whole life thinking: “this would be good experience to draw on when I play a broken-down pro-wrestler.” In his scenes with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) you find yourself knowing she’s right to reject him. Rourke has that “crazy man”-thing where common decency seems like a cigarette break. You know there’s good in him, but there’s also great debauchery. He doesn’t hang out at a strip club for the drinks.
Marisa Tomei, bravely shedding her clothes for art again (ogle also: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), looks forgiving – like she always does. Roger Ebert wrote she could never play a bitch. And he’s right. She always looks like she’s about to tell you about “her kid”… and brush a stray hair from her eyes. Her role in The Wrestler is about as clichéd and prurient as most women’s roles in Hollywood; as ever, there’s no parity whatsoever in terms of how she and Rourke are allowed to look. Rourke is 50 playing 50 and Tomei is 45 with a body that looks 22. Long ago she made a movie called Untamed Heart that a friend of mine’s arm appeared in (ah, the vicarious celebrity of the extra!), and that movie pretty much set out Tomei’s stall: hot but mushy – like chocolate pudding – she’s dependable.
Are there scenes that don’t work? Are there scenes that drag? Yes, yyyyyyyes. This movie isn’t a classic. It gets by on watching Mickey Rourke work the deli counter, or watching Mickey quit with the immortal words: “Get your own f—ing cheese!” It gets by on Marisa Tomei saying “I’m here for you” when the man she’s there for would be like typhoid for her children. It gets by on our respect for a man we only see at a turning point in his life.
We feel for Bruce Springsteen’s people because we all think the world’s against us. Even if you’re as white-collar as they come, you still want to be loved like an unemployed sheet-metal worker is loved by his pregnant girlfriend in a Bruce Springsteen song. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke plays a guy who wins us over because he doesn’t bitch about his troubles; he keeps wrestlin’. The movie is a hymn to stoicism as much as men in tights. It’s also about work – the grace of work – the part we can only see in others. How tough Mickey has it. How tough we all do. Cue Springsteen: Born to Run.