The Wrestler
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. 1 hr. 49 min. Rated R for violence, nudity, adult content and drug use.

There has already been lots of ink spilled and pixels displayed about The Wrestler being a comeback for actor Mickey Rourke. He’s pretty much of a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination, and he deserves it, though Sean Penn, for Milk, is a better bet to win.

The title character is so tailored to Rourke’s talents and has so many similarities to his real-life career (or at least his “legend”), that it seems impossible that it wasn’t written for him specifically. But Nicolas Cage was at one point lined up for it, which would have made for a very different film.

Under the opening credits, we see a collage of wrestling magazines and newspaper stories about the glorious Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a hugely popular professional wrestler. It’s hardly a downbeat start, until the image is replaced with an ominous “20 Years Later.”

Randy is still popular, but his glory days are over. He plays to smaller houses and just barely makes ends meet. Whenever he can’t pay the rent on his trailer park home, he sleeps in the back of his van and takes on menial jobs. But he still has some kind of equilibrium: Except for his recurring cash flow problems, he seems reasonably comfortable with his existence. He’s not one of those guys who is always dreaming of the big comeback. His life has simply flowed from greater to lesser fame and fortune; and it’ll manage to keep afloat as long as he can perform in the ring for his diminishing fan base.

Except he no longer can: No sooner do we get a general sense of Randy’s routine than he has a heart attack. After a bypass operation, the doctors make it clear that he can’t risk the exertion of wrestling.

The loss of his vocation suddenly drives home how little else he has in his life. He’s a nice, generally affable guy, and most everyone likes him. But outside of his professional colleagues, around whom he now feels awkward, his closest friends are the neighborhood kids and his favorite stripper, Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), from whom he buys lap dances.

His ancient “Randy the Ram” Nintendo game represents how time has slipped by without his noticing. A neighborhood adolescent, quickly bored by its slow action and boxy graphics, raves about the latest PS3 game. With his Whitesnake coif and his heavy-metal persona, Randy has become an artifact of the ’80s — a relic.

Given the gaping void in his life, he tries to forge something more real with Cassidy, as well as patch up his relationship with his long-estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood).

The autobiographical parallels are striking. In the early ’80s, Rourke quickly became a favorite with critics for a small supporting role in Body Heat; his status grew exponentially after Diner. But his performances became more mannered and his career choices odder: He was hilariously funny in Barfly, but it’s not clear just how intentional that was. The 1989 Johnny Handsome was his last decent film for a long stretch, much of which was the result of his bizarre decision to switch from acting to professional boxing, despite being in his late 30s.

He took either enough punches or enough steroids that the next time I saw a photo of him — a publicity still for the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Double Team — I didn’t recognize him, even though I had seen nearly every film he made between 1980 and 1992. First I thought it was mislabeled; then I thought they had taken Rourke’s head and badly pasted it onto to someone else’s body. It was, in a word, creepy.

He had a few semi-comebacks, starting with his supporting role in Francis Coppola’s The Rainmaker (1997) and then in a pair of Robert Rodriguez films. (He was always best as a “character actor,” not as a romantic lead.) The Wrestler is handily his best leading performance in years . . . possibly ever. Because he wears the part so comfortably and avoids histrionics and mannered affectations, you can almost believe you’re watching a documentary.

Director Aronofsky is on his best behavior here as well. His previous films — Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain — have been stylistically goosed up, with lots of flashy gimmicks and attempts at thematic profundity. In The Wrestler, he plays it straight, giving us a clear, linear narrative, interrupted only by one intercut flashback. The step away from pyrotechnics becomes him. 

andy@lacitybeat.com