Give your heart to somebody soon right away, right away

It’s hard to fathom an odder milieu for an Oscar-nominated film than the world of professional wrestling, particularly the seedy version of it that appears in Darren Aronofsky’s new film, The Wrestler. But then, it’s equally hard to find any corner of American pop culture that’s had more pathos seep into it in recent years. Robert Siegel’s screenplay about a former professional wrestling star that’s been reduced to low-paying bouts in re-purposed school gymnasiums and working in a supermarket warehouse to make ends meet could have been pulled from any number of muscle-bound toilers whose stories of woe have emerged in recent years. The film seems like it was pulled together by people who read a few new stories of dilapidated old wrestlers and thought it would be good framework for a film.

That may be a solid instinct. The resulting work is decently engaging, but it also feels like the barest of stories and character development were thrown onto that framework and not developed as much as it could have been. It sometimes seems like the plot was filled out almost entirely with the first ideas that spring to mind: the estranged daughter, the potential girlfriend in an equally low-respect occupation, the predictable arc as the protagonist tries to break free of the life that constrains him. These elements veer close to cliche, revived by the uniqueness of the world the characters are moving through and the depth of feeling in the performances.

Mickey Rourke is genuinely moving in the title role, tenderly playing a man that’s painfully aware of the ways in which he’s lost the best parts of himself and equally convinced that true redemption is unlikely. He can only relive his glory through old stories and outdated video games that celebrated his prowess. There are been plenty who dwell on the obvious corollaries with Rourke’s own career, but his performance is admirable enough without imposing these added shadings to it. Marisa Tomei can stand her work as a stripper Rourke’s battered bruiser romances up with her fine turn in last year’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. She’s developed a new specialty in fearless raw acting, bringing hard dignity to characters with aching, destitute souls. Even when the movie falters, seems a little wan, they hold it up with their unwavering honesty, steeped in a moving sympathy.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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