Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sheer heart attack

I saw "The Wrestler" last night. I'm not exactly the fanboy type, especially towards actors or actresses, but Mickey Roarke was always a bit of an exception. I'm not qualified to make statements such as "greatest performance ever," but Roarke's work in "Barfly" has to be up there. And I think "Angel Heart" would rank somewhere among the better films of all time had they not cast Lisa Bonet in such a crucial role. Roarke has a tragedian charm that, at least for me, is unmatched by any other actor. At the moment, I can't think of anyone who comes close.

So I was naturally interested in seeing "The Wrestler." But I was beginning to be put off by the hype. Had I waited another day or two, I might not have seen it until it played on FX or AMC. I'll bet you, reader, have heard all about it as well. A stunning comeback performance. Roarke inhabits the character. Roarke is the character. A tale of redemption in which real life mirrors fiction. I think if I would have read another glowing review of his performance, I'd start calling it "Barf Fly."

Nevertheless, I was able to overcome my revulsion at all the hype and see the movie. And I'm glad I did, even though it's not exactly what I'd call a pleasant experience. The earlier wrestling sequences rank among the most gruesomely violent that I can recall. The lead-up to the wrestler's heart attack was so intense that a member of the audience had some kind of medical emergency at the same time the Wrestler vomited and fell to the floor. At first everyone thought it was a heart attack. 911 must have received 100 calls. The lights went up, theater security appeared. The paramedics were on their way. But the guy recovered enough to walk out and the movie continued. Did that episode color my perception of how intense and disturbing that film sequence was? I don't think so. It's really that disturbing. Not pleasant at all.

I'm not sure what I think of Roarke's oh-so-famous and hyped performance. I guess it hinges on the extent to which he really is such a burned out shell of his former self versus the extent to which he was just acting that way. The Mickey Roarke of old appears trapped in an immense, and immensely grotesque body only capable of communicating anything beyond the sheer tragedy of its existence by lumbering and wheezing. Roarke's charm of old only comes out in a few scenes. There's one in which he and Marisa Tomei flirt in a bar that is just sublime in a film appreciation kinda way. And a few other flashes, but for the most part, the Wrestler's face is frozen and his eyes are dead. His body tells most of the story.

So maybe I should give Mick the benefit of the doubt? He was always a great physical actor--"Barfly" being exhibit A--but perhaps that was overshadowed somewhat by his immense charm? Hopefully, the Roarke of old is still in there somewhere, and could come out for more than a few brief flashes. It will be great if he can keep his shit together and get a lot more prominent roles in quality movies. I hate to think what he did to his body for that part. Hopefully, there was a lot of Hollywood magic making him look that pumped, but it sure appears he took a lot steroids. It sure as hell didn't come natural.

Normally, I care much, much more about the story than the acting, really only noticing the acting if it's abominably bad. "The Wrestler" is a great story in a collective unconscious-kinda-way. It's been told over and over and over again in many, many similar forms. Down-and-out hero makes a comeback. That's it. Story-wise, nothing in "The Wrestler" will surprise you. It all hinges on how well the filmmakers pull it off. Roarke comes through. And Marisa Tomei is good as well. She plays an older stripper who is losing her allure. My only criticism of her part might be that she looks way too good for that role. Yep, if you're some kinda crazed Marisa Tomei fan dying to see her spend extended time dancing in a G-string, this is the movie for you. She certainly takes some risks.

Anyway, I thought the filmmakers were doing a good job pulling off the age-old story comeback story until the very end. The final image was too predictable and abrupt, though I guess just about any believable ending would have been predictable at that point. Still, I would have handled it differently.