Bolstered by a career-best performance from Mickey Rourke and outstanding work by Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, the film could nab audience interest, especially if Rourke's portrayal generates the awards fever that greeted Ellen Burstyn's turn in Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream."
Rourke plays a one-time wrestling star, Randy the Ram, still hustling 20 years past his prime. The strongest scenes are the opening sections that simply delineate Ram's daily routines. He continues to perform in low-rent arenas, and the film does a fine job revealing the mixture of fakery and bruising physical assaults that are part of the wrestling game. Ram can barely pay his rent, perhaps because he still spends money on his appearance — dyeing his long locks, visiting a tanning salon and relying on steroids to stay in shape.
This sharp slice of life is not quite enough to sustain a movie, so writer Robert Siegel has come up with a plot that hits too many predictable notes. When Ram suffers a heart attack, he tries to make changes in his life, reaching out to a tough-as-nails stripper (Tomei) and his estranged daughter (Wood).
Although the film teeters on the brink of sentimentality, it never topples into the slush, a tribute to the rigorous direction as well as the astringent performances. Still, there are mawkish moments: When Rourke and Wood visit an abandoned beachside emporium, a tear trickles down his cheek as he pleads for her love. "Wrestler" oscillates between hard-edged naturalism and stock melodrama but ends on an understated note of melancholy that seems just right.
Rourke dispenses with all vanity to plumb the depths of this well-meaning but severely damaged man. Tomei delivers one of her most arresting performances, again without any trace of vanity. Wood's part is smaller, but she captures the scalding anger of a woman neglected for most of her life. The supporting players add to the authenticity of the atmosphere. That authenticity is the hallmark of the production, with vivid cinematography and set design.
Ram might be the ultimate loser, but Rourke scores a winning tour de force.