Thursday, December 11, 2008

Contenders: The Wrestler and Frost/Nixon

The Wrestler
Darren Aronofsky's tale of fifty-something wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson adjusting - poorly - to middle-age is pretty standard stuff, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. From the casette tapes (filled with his beloved '80s hair metal) and original Nintendo set that fill up Randy's modest trailer park home and mark him out as a walking anachronism through fly-on-the-wall scenes of wrestlers plotting the course of their matches in pre-bout strategy sessions to actor Mickey Rourke's ritual tapping of his elbows as he saunters up to the ring, Aronofsky's film builds its power from an accumulation of objects and gestures. The Wrestler's at its best when it focuses on the physical - the surprisingly graceless in-the-ring pounding, the post-bout doctor exam, Rourke's heavy breathing whenever he walks - or when it positions its central figure as a fish-out-of-water in a particularly dismal suburbia - dishing out potato salad behind the counter of a supermarket deli, his strings of blond hair absurdly done up in a sanitary net. Less successful are the scenes between Randy and the women in his life, stripper/love interest Marisa Tomei and estranged daughter Evan Rachel Wood, which represent something of a failure of imagination for Aronofsky and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel, refusing as they do to push much beyond the standard expectations signalled by "stripper/love interest" and "estranged daughter". But setting this claptrap aside, Aronofsky pulls out one late triumph - for himself as well as his hero. As Randy returns to the ring for one final bout, climbing up the ropes for one last body slam, his bum ticker barely chugging along, Rourke's character - along with the actor who embodies him in all his vulgarity and intense physicality - finishes where he started, positioned rather firmly in his element indeed.

Frost/Nixon makes for more or less dull viewing, but how do you generate cinematic interest out of a set-up that revolves almost entirely around a series of static television interviews? If you're Ron Howard, you don't do much of anything. Or rather you rely on your actors to carry the show. In the film's final twenty-minute-odd showdown, the filmmaker draws heavily on a succession of shot/reverse shots, the occasional establishing shot and the (very) occasional reaction shot - the latter of which aims to ensure that the audience knows exactly how to feel about the proceedings unfolding on screen, while Howard's classical cutting defers to his much lauded performers. But neither Frank Langella as Nixon nor Michael Sheen as popular television host/turned crack interviewer David Frost manage to carve out particularly convincing characterizations, the former slathering on his adenoidal crackle with a strained air of affectation, the latter never quite selling the switch from frivolous TV personality to a man capable of taking down the eminently self-possessed 37th President. Actually, the film zips right along for an hour and a quarter before its Syd Field screenplay (adapted by Peter Morgan from his own play to which it presumably hews pretty closely) demands that the lead character (Frost) hit his low point. From that dreary moment on, the film never recovers its pacing - and can no longer paper over Howard's lack of imagination - so that even a drunken phone call from Nixon to Frost in which the ex-President attempts to establish a biographical connection with his antagonist fails to capitalize on the set-up's obvious dramatic potential. From there, only the final interview remains and by the time Langella delivers his now famous line "I'm saying that when the President does it, that means it's not illegal" in his signature rasp, the film's devolved, if not quite into self-parody, at least into a singularly uncompelling bit of cinema, whatever the contemporary implications (Nixon=Bush?) of the line may be.

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