The Bigger Picture: Earnest Goes to the Movies

Written by The Bigger Picture

300_49943I recently had the pleasure of watching Darren Aronofsky’s film The Wrestler.  This was after I wrote my Oscar tirade, though the experience I had in that film has only added to my furor.  An often overlooked quality in film is the ability to be earnest, but it is so rarely accomplished.

There is a fine line to be walked between sincerity and pompousness.  Too often, filmmakers want to make you cry, rather than actually accomplishing it.  It is difficult not to be moved by a child’s tears, but once the youngster gets a taste of your sympathy he will exploit your kindness.  Hollywood often follows the “boy who cried wolf” method during the awards season, as if the only time audiences are allowed to cry is between December and February (not a bad strategy, as this is a stressful time of year).

In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke plays a washed up pro wrestler who is still clinging to the glory of his past.  If you replace the words “pro wrestler” with “actor,” you will be describing Rourke’s own career.  This leads to an incredibly genuine performance, and I actually walked away from the theater with an appreciation for professional wrestling that I didn’t have before.

Aronofsky himself probably realized the need to make a stripped-down film after receiving criticism that his previous films were pretentious.  Pi and Requiem for a Dream are pretty good movies, but I probably wouldn’t want to watch them more than once.  There wouldn’t be a need for a second viewing anyway, as every film student I have ever met has expounded on their brilliance.  The Fountain is a film I like very much for its ambition and beauty, but I can understand why someone would criticize it.

If you watch The Wrestler with a critical eye, you can see from the very beginning that you are watching the work of a filmmaker who consciously tried to rely less on his technique and more on his instincts.  For the first time in an Aronofsky film, the direction isn’t noticed and the actors are able to shine through.  There is one scene that I would even point out as the anti-Aronofsky, in which Rourke’s character finally lets go of “The Ram” for a moment and embraces a new life working the deli counter at a grocery store.  This scene is so expertly choreographed between director and actor, and we see Rourke use his charm by giving nicknames to his customers.  The camera, however, only reveals the customer after the christening so that we may chuckle at the appropriate handle.

In this new age of trial and renewed American optimism, these stories ring truer than those films that follow what I call the English Patient syndrome.  In poor economic times, Americans always embrace stories about hard work and redemption.  They don’t want to see stories about rich people with big front teeth who struggle to find romantic love on their father’s country estate.  Everyone is searching for love, and sometimes it’s best to embrace the idea that love isn’t as easily defined as some would think.

In Gran Torino, a flawed film that I like very much, this is the motivation for Clint Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski.  Thus two of the most memorable acting performances from this year are the characters you might be repulsed by were you to encounter them in your local Starbucks.  It is the great power of film that allows the inner motivations of these people to shine through their unpleasant exterior.

It is these odd characters that provoke the most reaction this year.  Eastwood does a twist on his old shtick, but it does the job exceptionally well.  Rourke is this year’s comeback kid, or at least the comeback leather handbag.  The Wrestler has, at least temporarily, resuscitated Mickey Rourke’s career.  The man has booked at least five movies since The Wrestler was released.  This career Renaissance for Rourke most likely will not last, but he is very deserving of his nomination.

While the academy were right to give Rourke a nomination, the fact that The Wrestler is not nominated for Best Picture or Director is downright silly.  People relate to the film and the character, as evidenced by the IMDB message-board thread entitled, “Anyone else see their current life situation as a mirror of Randy’s?”  The Wrestler and Gran Torino say more about the very human quest to love and be loved with their 115 minute running times than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button manages to say in all of its 166 minutes.  This is not to say that Button is bad, but Hollywood seems to have missed the point this year.

Why don’t we settle it in the ring?  Randy The Ram and Walt Kowalski versus Benjamin Button, age 8, and his twin brother Forrest Gump in a tag team battle royale.  The only foreseeable problem is over who gets to do the pinning.  The Ram will start to climb the turnbuckle to deliver his signature “Ram Jam” move, but Walt Kowalski will stop him, stating that he “finishes things.”  And then, just like a real match, the two will start to fight each other.  Who doesn’t want to see that?

Get me Ron Howard!  I have a pitch to give.

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