Some movie debuts stay with you permanently. Barry Levinson’s 1982 Diner actually marked Mickey Rourke’s fifth screen appearance -- amidst throwaway bits, he had previously been memorable in a small role in 1981’s Body Heat -- but Rourke proved to be an instantly captivating presence, and Brando comparisons honestly didn’t seem out of line. But after a brief reign of glory in the early 1980s, Rourke’s career went up in flames, thanks to personal problems as well as a tendency to pick dreadful material. A comeback via 2005’s Sin City failed to take root, but no matter: Rourke now has the role of a lifetime in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. On paper, The Wrestler sounds like Rocky reconfigured for the wrestling rather than boxing arena. But Robert Siegel’s screenplay fleshes out the basic storylines in unique ways, and Aronofsky and Rourke add a rich palette to the proceedings, resulting in a movie that’s frequently as colorful as it is meaningful. If Milk touches on America’s prejudices and The Dark Knight examines America’s fears, then The Wrestler explores America’s regrets. Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who was quite the big deal in the wrestling world back in the 1980s. Twenty years forward, however, and Randy is now long past his glory days. Two decades of hard partying have wiped him out, and if he has any emotional reservoirs to tap, he wants to make sure to save them for the two women in his life. The first is Cassidy (an excellent Marisa Tomei), a stripper at the club he frequents who is always there to lend Randy a sympathetic ear (usually in the middle of a lap dance). The other female on Randy’s mind is his daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood); because he was never there for her while she was growing up. Yet much of the best material revolves around Randy’s career as a wrestler. Aronofsky and Siegel do a remarkable job of treating its practitioners with respect, so much so that it’s softened my stance toward these athletes (dare we call them artists?) who give so much of themselves for the entertainment of others. There are a couple of absorbing sequences in which the wrestlers discuss the evening’s routines, laying out strategies and choreographing moves. They may as well be ballet dancers contemplating pirouettes -- at least until they enter the ring, whereupon they might find themselves rolling around in barbed wire and using staple guns on each other’s heads (a sequence that’s at once funny, frightening and fascinating).
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