I watched Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler this weekend, and found it surprisingly moving. Surprising, because I'd already seen Barry Blaustein's equally funny and heart-breaking documentary Beyond The Mat (I) and I knew exactly where this story was going. If there's one overriding theme in Blaustein's look at the everyday lives of 90s-era heels and baby-faces, it's that being in the biz is a nearly impossible habit to break. The entertainer can be a born-again straight-arrow like Terry Funk, or a fucked-up junkie like Jake "The Snake" Roberts (whose daughter seems to have provided some grist for Aronofsky's creative mill), the deeper addiction they all have in common is wrestling.
There are other surprises as well. How did Mickey Rourke's whispery tenor deteriorate into a growl that dropped two octaves? Is that sleep-apnea breathing of his something he affected for the character, or is it a permanent condition? Rourke playing a washed-up wrestler (Randy "The Ram" Robinson) doesn't require any great suspension of disbelief; the thespian feat that cinched his Oscar nomination was looking like he was having a good time behind a deli counter, charming regular shmoes into buying an extra scoop of potato salad.
The Ram's story is played against the quieter drama of Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but who recognizes that age is bringing her particular career choice to a definitive close. She clearly knows from bitter experience it's best not to give this big lunk an "in", and yet ... he's kind of sweet.
If played with subtlety and conviction, there's no reason why the obvious shouldn't be emotionally compelling. I knew I'd swallowed the hook deeply when I heard Randy and Cassidy ranting about how the 90s, and Curt Cobain, ruined rock 'n' roll, and I ... well, I didn't agree with them. But I thought they had a point. And this was all taking place as "Round & Round" by Ratt was being played — an environment that emphatically did not lend itself to their argument.
A film like this doesn't usually produce sequels, but that's what I'm proposing. I'd line up and pay good money to see Tomei's character attempt the transition from stripper to square. Can she find intimacy after 20 years of pole-dancing? Can she manage life as a coffee-slinger or office temp? How does she navigate her son's transition into puberty? Not too many suits in Hollywood are likely to take a chance on such a movie, but if you can market a film with an aging guy in tights, why not a film with an aging woman in a thong?