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Home » Culture and Criticism

Crazy Diamonds: The Wrestler and Criminal Law

Submitted by on June 11, 2009 – 3:30 PM32 Comments

I waited to watch The Wrestler, because I did want to see it right when it came out, but the press surrounding Mickey Rourke’s performance quickly grew to a height that dwarfed the film itself — not just the second-chance-Charlie pieces, but the pieces from 25 years ago to which those pieces referred, the self-congratulatory mentions of how, once upon a time, that same publication had compared Rourke to a young Brando.

rourkedinerEven if the Brando comparison is one I’d consider compelling — and it isn’t, as I think Brando himself is over-praised — I couldn’t get on board with that over-praise either.I’ve never thought that Rourke is bad; he’s good at what he’s asked to do, usually, even excellent on occasion.But you have to look at what he’s asked to do, or what he’s actually doing.Not a lot, often, and when you put what Rourke does next to amped-up gabbling (Nicolas Cage and Vincent Spano, Rumble Fish; Eric Roberts, The Pope of Greenwich Village) or pouty posing/peering through eyelashes (Kim Basinger, 9½ Weeks), it’s going to look a lot more considered and professional than it is.Even when it’s very good, it’s relative to the crap surrounding it.

It’s very good here.Did it deserve the Oscar?I didn’t see Milk, so I can’t speak to that role, but I like it when an actor doesn’t feel he has to “show the work” and be in motion every second he’s onscreen, and Rourke did marvelous, understated work in The Wrestler — but I think Richard Jenkins did the same sort of thing just as well in The Visitor.

Rourke also benefited from strong writing and production design.The shots of Randy with his blond topknot and his hearing aid, puttering through the dollar store, have a narrative depth of field that’s nice, and part of that is Rourke and the way he has the character walk.Most of it, though, is the production values, or shot set-ups like the one from behind Randy at the fan event, panning across these other busted dudes with their VHS tapes and their war wounds, the low ceiling pressing them down.The movie itself doesn’t put a foot wrong — well, the scene where he quits the Acme is a bit tired, but not to the point of bothering me, really — and neither does Rourke, but I have to wonder how much of that is the casting.

Rourke does have one bit of business he does that nobody in film does better, though, and I hope I can explain it.He does it when Randy wants to go over the moves with the Ayatollah, and the Ayatollah blows him off all “you’re the face, I’m the heel, next,” and Rourke makes a face that says, “…So you’re that guy.Okay then.”He does it in Diner when Bagel mentions Boogie’s father and Boogie says, “Look, uh, leave my father out of it.”

You can express the same thing a number of different ways, facially — an eye-roll, a jaw-clench — but Rourke looks into the middle distance and does a small, visual snort type of thing.It has an unshowy defeatedness to it that I like.

crimlawI got to thinking about the things that certain actors do well, things we may forget about after a while, when I watched Criminal Law the other day.No damn idea why I recorded it off IFC, and the movie does almost nothing right except for putting Gary Oldman in the lead.

Oldman is Ben Chase, a former prosecutor turned slick defense attorney, who gets Kevin Bacon off on a murder rap; then Bacon retains him permanently, as insurance (don’t ask), then keeps a-killin’, because Bacon’s mother performs abortions as part of her GYN practice, and as a child, Bacon walked in on a late-term termination and it traumatized him (don’t ask), so he kills patients of his mother’s who have terminated pregnancies, stuffs diapers in their mouths, and lights them on fire…when he’s not staring at Oldman like Oldman is a delicious dessert of some sort.That I can forgive; Oldman has amazing poofy ’80s hair that does resemble a meringue in some scenes, and he is so young and cute, running around in thunderstorms feeling responsible for Bacon’s crime spree, playing squash, and having uncomfortable rough sex with Agent Sanseverino from The Sopranos, then averting his eyes politely when she’s bad at onscreen crying. (She’s pretty damn good at kicking Bacon in the nuts, though. Git it, Karen Young!)

The movie is garbage dump of dumb twists, rain-machine abuse, weird “we’re not really talking about boats anymore, are we” double non-tendres, and C-plus attempts by Bacon to portray a psycho killer via “I am fey, FEAR ME” staring — but Oldman finds a way to react to the ridiculous in a realistic way.Joe Don Baker says at one point, and I quote, “A crazy killer is crazy.And he will kill you.”I said, out loud, “Thanks, Joe Don Baker!You’re awesome!Now back in your hole,” and then there was a cut to Oldman, making that exact face.Hee.Thanks, Gary Oldman!You’re awesome!

olddracHe’s a good listener on film, better than most; when someone else is talking, my eyes go to Oldman hearing, processing.It seems like he went through a period back in the ’90s where every role required him to have seriously disgusting teeth, dreads, and a substance-abuse problem, and it felt like the scripts and the designers would load his characters up with kookoopants visual signifiers and rando dialogue and he’d have to eat a bug or some damn thing, which he would do 100 percent because he’s a pro, but after a while I forgot that he has a nice smile and can play normal people with wives and floss and whatnot.He still gave you the piano moments amid all the forte crashing around, because he reacts instead of merely waiting for his next cue; he has a couple of nice bits in The Professional, which he had to wring out of that character as written.It just got harder and harder to find him under all the prosthetics.

I did not recognize him for an hour in Batman Begins, and yes, he had the big old mustache, but really it’s because they gave him a normal person to play, and I sat in the theater all, “Who’s that Ned Flanders-looking guy, he’s really good in this ro– holy shit, it’s Oldman!”He’s not a drug dealer, or a terrorist, or Beethoven, or goddamn Reverend Dimmesdale.He’s just reacting in 3D to cartoonish circumstances around him.When Gordon reappears in The Dark Knight after getting “killed,” Oldman pulls a few sweet faces to indicate that the character is kind of tickled to have fooled everyone, despite the emotional cost, and this is what makes Oldman a great actor, I think — that when the direction allows it, he gives you texture.




  • Annie says:

    How have I never heard of Criminal Law? That sounds so terrible! Would it make a good double feature with Listen To Me?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    How elastic is your definition of “good”?

  • Michael says:

    So basically, Joe Don Baker was playing Tim McCarver?

  • Todd says:

    I couldn’t get *upset* about Penn winning for “Milk.” He has given performances that I thought were deeper and more challenging than his Harvey Milk (“The Falcon And The Snowman,” “Dead Man Walking,” “Sweet And Lowdown”), but he met his own typical standard — which, as I wrote in my review of it, is as high as that of any male actor presently acting in English. But I was pulling for Rourke, who has done nothing better. “The Wrestler” was also the better film, in my opinion.

  • Jeanne says:

    I really really wanted a tie on Oscar night, I thought both Penn and Rourke were that good. Penn because he was actually likeable in that movie and for two hours made me forget what a pompouss jackass he is in real life, and Rourke for all the reasons Sars said.

    I didn’t recgonize Oldman for the entirety of Dark Knight. It wasn’t until I saw his name in the credits that I realized that holy shit, it was Oldman! The same thing happened with Batman Begins. It gave me a new appreciation for how good he is. Being able to completely disappear into a character and being able to express strong emotion without going over the top are how I measure a good actor. He fits both requirements beautifully.

  • Grainger says:

    “holy shit, it’s Oldman!”

    That was exactly my reaction, and I knew going in that Gary Oldman was playing Jim Gordon. I’m like, Norm Stansfield? Zorg? Dracula? Oswald? Dude with no eyelids who gets his ass et by pigs? THAT’S THE SAME GUY?

    He’s also Sirius Black, and who the hell would have picked THAT one…

    Hey, here’s a Dream Team for you: “No Country For Old Men 2”, starring Gary Oldman and Willem Dafoe as cops. Cameo by Christopher Walken as the psycho killer’s foster father.

  • Sharon says:

    Rourke was robbed! His performance was BY FAR superior to Penn’s. “Milk” was snooze-tastic and while I understand why it was nominated, I can’t believe “The Wrestler” didn’t even get a nomination.

  • Tisha_ says:

    Gary Oldman is my favorite… and I personally think he’s hot. I’m so glad to see at least 1 other person in the world appreciates him.

    With everyone else, it’s like, “Who the hell is Gary Old-ham?” when I mention him.

    Also, my favorite role of his, is the one with the seriously disgusting teeth, dreads, and substance-abuse problem. lol

  • Annie says:

    Sars: In this context, I guess “good” means “hilarious after several beers, with friends.”

  • Tara says:

    I love it when you write about Diner.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Tara: Any excuse…

  • Drew says:

    I did see The Wrestler pretty much right away because I had admired so much of what Rourke had done before he took a turn towards obscurity, before starting his return with a couple of great character roles in The Rainmaker and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. In the end, I don’t know if it was the crazy hype around it or if it was the storytelling devices, but I think it was probably both, and I came away underwhelmed, by both the movie and Rourke’s performance. I think Rourke’s performance suffered from all of the “Great Redemption” stories in the press, to the point where I thought, “Well, yeah, he’s a method actor, but how much of an exercise is it to play yourself?”

    As for the movie, as you’ve said, from a technical aspect, it’s very, very good. I don’t think Darren Aronofsky has ever made a film that’s not interesting to look at, and the production design captures the mood perfectly, but the script falls prey to far too many sports movie cliches, and I saw pretty much every plot point coming a mile down the road. I also can’t say enough about bad things about Evan Rachel Wood’s performance, which deserves it’s own special subheading in the “Scenery, Chewers of” portion of the acting encyclopedia.

    Milk is an interesting one, and I’d recommend you check it out. I know you’re not a Sean Penn fan, but it’s worth the effort. I went into it counting two strikes against it: (1) a biopic (2) starring Sean Penn (see above re: scenery chewing–Mystic River still makes my skin crawl), but the script does a smart thing by choosing not to be a “life-to-death” story, focusing instead on only Harvey Milk’s political career, allowing for considerable depth to be created in Penn’s character. As for Penn, perhaps playing a real person is what he needed to keep his showiness in check, because his performance never gave me the impression that he was doing a mimicry or caricature. That may also be because I was almost completely unfamiliar with what Harvey Milk looked/sounded like before seeing the movie, but it’s a very good performance, and I was not unhappy to see him take the Oscar this time (unlike, again, for Mystic River). Milk is also worth checking out for the great support work from Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch, and James Franco, all of whom, in any other year that didn’t involve Heath Ledger, probably would have had more serious consideration come awards season.

  • jive turkey says:

    Just watched The Wrestler, and LOVED that moment w. the Ayatollah that you mention. I’m a sucker for the subtle stuff.

    I’m dying to hear your opinion of Rachel Getting Married – have you seen it? (My apologies if you’ve already covered it here, but I did a quick search and don’t think you have.)

  • Elizabeth says:

    I’m kind of curious to see the movie where Oldman plays a midget, personally. This is apparently a real thing that actually happened:

  • anne says:

    The magic of “double non-tendres” and “wives and floss” means I have to forgive you for that awful knife-licking picture, but sheesh. Ouch.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @jive: I did see it; I thought it was outstanding. A few moments didn’t work for me (the dishwasher scene was well-played by all, but rang false in its inception), but overall I loved it, and thought Rosemarie Witt got robbed at awards time. (Hope I spelled her name right.) It does a great job of capturing how real weddings go through mini-narratives of their own, and the tone of those various beats.

    Also, M. Diz!:

  • RJ says:

    “I said, out loud, “Thanks, Joe Don Baker! You’re awesome! Now back in your hole,”” – HAAAAAAAAAA!

    Also – “MITCHELL!” (Mystery Science Theater – one of the funniest, I think.)

    I am not a huge Oldman fan, but I really liked him in the “Batman” films. And as cheesy as it might be, I loved Mickey Rourke as Bruiser (the brilliant, but completely crooked lawyer who ends up helping the good guy) in “The Rainmaker.” Other than that, I really haven’t seen much of his work.

  • Margaret in CO says:

    Gary Oldman is a king. He played Sid Viscious, played Mason Verger, played Rosenkrantz, Pontius Pilot, Lee Harvey Oswald, the psychopimp Drexyl, and yeah, Sirius Black! The man has more range than anyone, IMHO. LOVE the guy.

    (for tisha: )

  • Erin W says:

    I agree with everything Drew said about Milk.

    What WAS with that weird dishwasher scene in Rachel Getting Married? It reminded me of the scene in Dan in Real Life where, for reasons unknown, the adult siblings are all playing hide and seek or some damn thing.

  • Alexis says:

    “Double non-tendre” is completely brilliant.

  • Adrienne says:

    To keep this on topic: right there with you. Oldman is a genius. Crazy crooked cop terrorizing a tiny Natalie Portman and tangling with Jean Reno in The Professional? Awesome? And wait, what do you mean that’s the same dude as the fey weapons dealer from The Fifth Element

    In other, unrelated news, I rewatched Reality Bites a few weeks ago (…why were we rooting for Ethan Hawke again…?) and had TOTALLY forgotten that Joe Don Baker plays Winona Ryder’s dad. Awesome.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Does anyone else have a thing with Joe Don Baker where they see him and are compelled to say aloud, “Huh, you and Tommy Lasorda. …I HATE Tommy Lasorda! [crunch]”

    Just me? All right then.

  • RJ says:

    Sars, if you haven’t seen it, you really must see the MST3K version of “Mitchell!” Seriously, you will never see Joe Don Baker the same way again. (Just fast-forward the part where he’s – GAK – in bed with Linda Evans. No, really.)

  • Wendalette says:

    Love Gary Oldman, too! While Sir Anthony seems to think he can play any role, Oldman actually does it and quite well. Sometimes, in my head, I’ll recast an unsatisfying/unconvincing movie role with him just to see how much better it would be.
    @Elizabeth — I saw “Tiptoes”; he was brilliant in it. And wow with the prosthetics and filming effects.

    And in other news, I miss Rouke’s old (1980s) face. Maybe he traded it in for better acting? Maybe that’s kind of mean, but seriously, “The Wrestler” was for me his most comfortably watchable movie, even when the situations being depicted were most UN-comfortable to watch. (I hope you al understand what I mean.)

  • Jen S says:

    RJ, I second the motion! Mitchell is a classic, from Jon Saxon to the yelling match with a ten year old kid. And the sex scene, horrific as it is, does have some of the best riffing. Hee!

    Oh….the actual topic…um, I liked The Wrestler. Marisa Tomei got robbed–she was the first “legit” actress I’ve seen who can play a topless dancer, seriously. First of all, she took off her damn top (I’m looking at you, Jessica Alba) and secondly, she wore her dance gear like it was regular work clothes, which it was.

  • JessicaR says:

    Criminal Law is up in parts at YouTube and oh my god. I mean, who runs an abortion clinic out of their *house*?

  • Jody says:

    My husband and I watched The Wrestler over the weekend and we both enjoyed it, not knowing specifically what to expect. We both felt so darn bad for the guy mostly because we know someone just like this! A “past his prime” wrestler from the early 90’s now doing gigs at our local armory with other “past their prime” wrestlers…all still trying to rock long, bleached out hair and tans! Mickey Rourke may have just been playing himself but he certainly reminded us of the guy that we know who still punishes himself every weekend.

  • Sandman says:

    I avoided The Wrestler myself for a while, mostly because of all the hype surrounding it and the “rebirth” (whatevs) of Rourke. I was pleasantly surprised by how restrained and detailed Rourke’s performance was. Not all of what Rourke is doing can be chalked up to an identification between performer and role, but that’s an easier hook, I guess. I had trouble with the pacing – the early part of the film dragged, for me; but I don’t think that’s on Rourke. I think you’re right that often Rourke looks subtle in comparison with the scenery-chewers he’s shared screen time with. I’m with Drew: Milk worked for me largely because Penn’s usual histrionics were toned down. Instead of seeing Sean Penn, mannered and self-indulgent Method Man, I saw a warm-hearted funny human being. Imagine my shock. I think overall The Wrestler might be a better-made film (and has Marisa Tomei ever been better?) than Milk, but we know the Academy loves it some some biopics.

    “Even if the Brando comparison is one I’d consider compelling — and it isn’t, as I think Brando himself is over-praised “

    Just when I thought you couldn’t be more awesome. Ha! And “Thanks, Joe Don Baker! You’re awesome! Now back in your hole,” makes me snort with laughter. Repeatedly. The knife-licking picture you so thoughtfully posted is the single most harrowing image in that movie for me. Eep.

  • Wrongshore says:

    ” and then there was a cut to Oldman, making that exact face.

    Sean Penn has moments like this — the one that I love is in 21 Grams, when Naomi Watts is freaking out and he hugs her, and behind her back you see his face go, “Crazy lady. I should probably shut up for a while and then leave.” Sadly, his action does not follow the lead of his face.

  • Thomasina says:

    I was so glad that Sean Penn won for “Milk.” I think Penn’s was the far better performance (and movie as a whole), and I was surprised and pleased that the Academy, for once, gave the award based solely on what was up on the screen instead of the actor’s attendant inspirational backstory and PR push. I like it when an actor gets awarded for a great performance, not for having had some personal tragedy in her life recently or for not having won last year.

  • Emily says:

    I hate Tommy Lasorda.

  • Nomie says:

    My friends and I refer to him as “Surprise!Gary Oldman” now because almost everybody has that exact reaction to him as Gordon. Everybody.

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