For those of you living under a rock for the past month, here’s a plot synopsis of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler: Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a retired professional wrestler, searches for the love of the two women (Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood) closest to him—yet also the most inaccessible to him—after living a life in which the only love he chose to embrace came from paying audiences. As he comes to terms with his aging physique, The Ram’s struggle to grasp and define these fragile relationships causes him to reevaluate love outside of the physically-demanding sport of professional wrestling.
The performances in this film are mesmerizingly on-target. And, without ever diving too deeply into the redundancy of melodrama, The Wrestler manages to exude just the right amount of sentimentality to come across as whole-heartedly genuine while intimately evaluating the relationships that The Ram chooses to confront. On an intriguing side-note, Rourke’s real-life, fifty-six-year-old nipped/tucked face substructures his physical performance quite well—he seems remarkably incapable of facial animation. This surgical side-effect played its part ingeniously when it came time for him to shed a few tears in a scene in which he pours his battered heart out to his estranged daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). Those tears contrasted his wooden face so starkly that his performance veritably paralleled his self-description as a “broken-down piece of meat.” Wood’s performance, along with Marisa Tomei’s turn as an aging, parent-by-day, stripper-by-night, love interest of The Ram’s is every bit as welcomingly raw as Rourke’s; every word is as elegantly spoken as it should be and every gesture is as genuine as the life The Ram so badly wants to claim. Anything else that I could write about this film would not only be redundant in a journalistic sense, but has undoubtedly been written far more in-depth in innumerable other reviews—the vast majority of which praise the film as much as I. So, I’ll do you a favor and summarize nearly every single review on this film: go out and see it.
It’s clear that The Wrestler is nearly universally appraised as one of the near-perfect films of the year. And, now that that’s out of the way, I can draw attention to its inadvertent tangent to a much broader issue within contemporary cinema—and within the circle of critics by which cinema is both routinely dignified and appraised. To explain my forthcoming point, let us first take a moment to obverse the similarities between Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading: they are both incredibly well-acted, directed to an absolute tee, paced deliberately slowly (sometimes a little too slowly for my tastes), and they conclude with a significant lack of closure (which is completely fine, but it’s a similarity that I want to point out). Essentially, The Wrestler left me with the feeling that Aronofsky took a huge chapter out of the Coen book before he began production on what is now considered to be his best film, and one of this year’s best as well. The parallel between these two films elucidates my point: Both films could have inarguably benefited from more excitement—a bit more of a punch, if you will. The Wrestler spends so much of its time intimately relating the audience to The Ram’s tolling profession as a wrestler, and to his dejected life as a solitary man, that the film ultimately hinges upon the supposition that The Ram’s career and personal life are sufficiently interesting to warrant such an extremely introspective look (fortunately, they are.) Burn After Reading, on the other hand, hinges upon its plot’s darkly comedic aspects combined with its bold casting choices (namely Pitt as a complete idiot). In short, both of these films forsake traditional narrative structure (read: suspense) for an egotistical “look at how well I put this together” self-back-patting.
The truth, however, is that sometimes a film needs to be more than a finely-crafted assemblage; sometimes inventive cinematography, flawless performances, and convincing dialogue are not enough to truly make a film entertaining for someone who isn’t an industry insider, a die-hard film fanatic, or a critic. Uninterested action fanboys and romance fangirls aside, I would argue that there is still a significant amount of adult moviegoers who look at a film like Aronofsky’s The Wrestler or the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading and think to themselves: “Great, that was a very well done film. It’s hard to critique it based on its artistic merit—but, the truth is, it really wasn’t that fun to watch. It was no ‘Dark Knight.’” I’d further argue that when the average moviegoer comes to this conclusion, they subsequently feel that to articulate such a critique would be to go against the grain so sharply that their credibility as a critic would be nullified. And, that is the catch-22 of a film as emotionally beautiful and as true to life as The Wrestler or as ingeniously acted and as perfectly casted as Burn After Reading; to critique an otherwise perfectly-crafted film for a lack of the oft-expected cinematic gravity and white-knuckled suspense is to be considered immature, naïve, simple-minded, or simply disrespectful as a film critic. How unfortunate this is—yet, intriguingly, such a response is still never truly enough to earn these films a low grade from almost any critic.
Ultimately, I’m left with the following questions: Am I essentially lying to myself that these films are masterpieces simply because of the pleasure I receive from watching their traditional cinematic cogs work together so seamlessly in an industry in which dirt (read: Friedberg and Seltzer) runs free? Is it merely by a contrast that I enjoy these films? Put another way, if every Hollywood movie were—at the bare minimum—as well-crafted as The Wrestler or Burn After Reading, would these two particular films be in the “IMDB Bottom 100” list of that hypothetical heap (due to their aforementioned lack of traditional suspense)? Would they be the Disaster Movies of their time? Or is all of this merely petty sensationalist talk resulting from an innate, childish impatience? In the end, that’s for you—the viewer—to truly decide.