On the Ropes
Sailer, Steve, The American Conservative
"THE WRESTLER" is a slow-paced, predictable, but highly effective drama about a lonely former pro-wrestling star trying to hang on a little longer in the dim spotlight of minor league matches in New Jersey VFW halls and elementary-school gymnasiums. The warmhearted screenplay by Robert D. Siegel exhibits the mastery of cliches that you'd expect from a former editor of The Onion, but plays them for pathos rather than irony.
"The Wrestler" depends utterly upon the painful authenticity of fifty-something Mickey Rourke's performance as nice guy whose every good intention is undermined by excess-testosterone syndrome. Rourke is so mesmerizing that you'll make up your own little list of current stars who could use two decades in career limbo.
Yet what about the almost equally improbable resume of Rourke's 44-year-old co-star Marisa Tomei? Her courtroom scene in 1992's "My Cousin Vinny" as unemployed beautician Mona Lisa Vito, who testifies as an expert witness on the rear suspension of a 1964 Buick Skylark, was one of the unexpected triumphs in movie history. Tomei rightly beat out Vanessa Redgrave for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, only to be dogged by a ridiculous rumor campaign claiming that a senile Jack Palance had announced the wrong name onstage.
A rather dreary career ensued. Due to the decline in the number of female screenwriters after 1960 (husband-wife writing teams have been replaced by brother acts), there are now far more fine actresses than fine roles for them. Entering her mid-40s, Tomei started taking her clothes off on-camera, beginning with the otherwise forgettable "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Career momentum restored, Tomei has now been nominated for an Oscar for her role in "The Wrestler" as a stripper with a heart of gold. While Tomei's character is trying to get out of stripping, Rourke's is striving to stay in wrestling.
Hollywood's Golden Age leading men tended to be disproportionately Irish-American, such as Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy, and John Wayne. They were amiable tough guys from a concussion-centric culture who could throw--and take--a punch.
For a half decade after his stunning cameo as a professional arsonist in 1981's "Body Heat," Rourke looked to be their worthiest successor. The languid and cocky Rourke was the most magnetic star to emerge in the 1980s. …