Sunday, January 25, 2009

Finally, The Wrestler

The Wrestler finally opened in Memphis. Like Keith Demko at Reel Fanatic mentioned, I’m rather surprised that the movie took so long to make it to this area. He’s out of Macon/Atlanta. Both Memphis and Atlanta are huge wrestling markets. Atlanta is home to TNA wrestling (the only real challenger to WWE) and Memphis is a developmental area for wrestlers and we have a local wrestling show. Seems like great markets for this movie. I’ll comment more on this later as well as the setting in which I saw the film.

The Movie

As far as the movie’s particulars, there’s not too much to say. Mickey Rourke plays a washed-up wrestler. I don’t think you really need to know much more than that. In fact, I afraid to say too much more because while the film covers a lot of emotional ground, it doesn’t do many things, so, instead of talking about what goes on in the movie, I’d rather talk about my impressions and what I left the film with.

I’m a wrestling fan. When I was a kid my friends and I used to fake wrestle. We made our own championship belts. We made fake rings on friends’ trampolines or just rolled around in the yard. But even at the younger ages when I first started watching, it was pretty evident that it was scripted. The suspension of disbelief doesn’t last long. When you realize that a person just can’t get beat up like they do every week – actually sometimes 6 or 7 days a week – you realize that it’s all a show. But it’s an entertaining one. Given this, I fully expected to like the movie. And I did. There are some powerful performances here. Hearing what some wrestlers and some people in the industry have said about it, I was expecting something that railed against the wrestling industry a bit more, but it wasn’t really like that at all. It just paints the portrait of a washed-up athlete. There are actually plenty of sports industries where older athletes find themselves in the same place that Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson finds himself in this film.

There was a time when I felt that wrestlers were like rock stars. I thought they wined and dined and lived the high life. Rick Flair had a lot to do with this opinion. I’m sure some of them actually do get to live like this, and it’s probably better today than it was in the ‘80s. But there came a point in time that I realized that a lot of these guys wound up in trailer parks or were living paycheck to paycheck just like a good many blue-collar workers in this country. Sometime in the early ‘90s, I read a magazine article about James “Buster” Douglas who had started an organization to help boxers manage their finances and provide them with all kinds of counseling about medical coverage and the like. It really drove home the point that a lot of these guys who get into these sports may at some time live the high life, but a great many of them don’t end up there.

That’s where we find The Ram – on a rapidly accelerating downhill slope from the top of his career. He’s playing the small indie circuit, getting paid cuts from the door and showing up for autograph signings at American Legion halls. One of the places this films greatly succeeds – aside from the stellar performances from Rourke and Marisa Tomei – are the moments behind the scenes between all the wrestlers. It’s intimate. I know it was for film and it was staged – but then again, that’s what these guys do all the time, stage their shows. So this intimacy came off documentary real. It’s not quite the same feeling you’d get sitting in the same room with these guys, I mean, you become a part of that dynamic then, too, but it was like watching these guys from behind a two-way mirror. It was visceral and almost voyeuristic – almost uncomfortably so. And if you’re more than just a casual wrestling viewer, you’ll recognize many of the faces as the director hired a lot of underground and low-card wrestlers to play these back-stage wrestlers.

One big thing this movie isn’t is a redemption tale. I think American movie goers get caught up in that concept. We like the ideas of vengeance and justice and redemption even though the first two aren’t always realistic. Yet, we continue to look forward to those things in all our entertainment. Many of the films that “phone it in” or “take the easy way out” simply play those aspects with little other plot. This movie isn’t any of those things. The Wrestler is kind of like a Greek tragedy where the protagonist is the guy who finally listens to fate. He accepts his destiny and finally, simply revels in it.

It doesn’t leave you feeling good, but it leaves you feeling.

The setting

I saw this movie at Memphis’ only indie movie theater. It’s the only place in town carrying it. It was my first time going here and I rather liked it, to be honest. It’s a small five-screen theater, but the seating, screen and sound were modern and rather good. The cinema is distinct in this area in that it also has a café and serves food prepared on site rather than simple nachos or hot dogs.

I went to the 1:40 showing today (Sunday), it was the first showing of the day. I didn’t expect to have to fight for parking or fight crowds, but I admit it was a pleasant surprise. When I got into the theater, it was packed. I found a seat, but wound up scooting over so a couple could sit next to me. That was a mistake. The lady sitting next to me had bathed in her cheap, smelly perfume. This became a problem as the movie progressed. The film was shot with a lot of hand-held cameras, so there were some shaky sequences. This visual jumpiness coupled with this chick’s odor made me nauseous about halfway through the movie. I powered through and did my best to ignore it, but it just served to remind me why I hate going to see movies in the theater. It’s an environment where I have little control. I can still feel the full-body nausea in the back of my neck. But even after that, it was worth it.

Go see it.

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