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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

There's already Oscar buzz around Mickey Rourke for his performance in the new film, "The Wrestler." Rourke plays a semi-retired pro-wrestler trying to adjust to life outside the circuit. The film is directed by Darren Aronofsky, known for his directing "Pi" and Requiem for a Dream." Critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: "The Wrestler" is Mickey Rourke's comeback - I'm not exactly sure from where, but it did a number on his face. When he became a star in 1982 in "Diner," he was lean and self-contained and perpetually amused, as if smiling at some private dirty joke. His voice was soft and seductive. These days, his face is a swollen mask, his voice about an octave lower.

But in this movie, his ravaged appearance works. He's such a mess you want to see him triumph. Rourke plays aging pro-wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson, once a star on the circuit, and he has long, yellow hair and looks like a battered lion - like hell, but in his tragic way, beautiful. Now, though, he's alone, forsaken, clinging to his career in spite of a failing body. He once abandoned his wife and child. His daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, won't talk to him, and he resorts to reaching out to the only woman who gives him any warmth, an aging stripper who calls herself Cassidy, played by Marisa Tomei, who has the grace not to let him see her eyes wander in search of other lap-dance customers. Randy wants to meet her outside the club, and somehow this hulk manages to get to her.

(Soundbite of movie "The Wrestler")

Mr. MICKEY ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) Have a beer with me.

Ms. MARISA TOMEI: (As Cassidy) I've got to get going.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) One beer.

Ms. TOMEI: (As Cassidy) I really - I've got a kid.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) You have a kid? Well, what do you have, a boy or a girl?

Ms. TOMEI: (As Cassidy) Boy. Jamison.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) How old?

Ms. TOMEI: (As Cassidy) Nine.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson): Wow. Hmm. Who would figure, huh?

Ms. TOMEI: (As Cassidy) Well, it's not something I usually tell the customers. It's not exactly - it's not a turn-on.

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) Hold on. Wait a second. I want you to give this to your little guy. It's a Randy "The Ram" action figure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) Tell him not to lose it. It's a $300 collector's item.

Ms. TOMEI: (As Cassidy) Really?

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROURKE: (As Randy "The Ram" Robinson) Come on. Hey, one beer.

Ms. TOMEI: (As Cassidy) OK.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EDELSTEIN: That little voice Marisa Tomei does at the end, she's speaking with the Randy "The Ram" action figure he gave her. She's touched by that little toy. But we know that even if Randy bonds with her and somehow breaks through his daughter's anger, he'll screw it all up, because after all he's only good for one thing in life, even if it kills him.

Director Darren Aronofsky and writer Robert D. Siegel conceived the film for Rourke. They put him on a pedestal and, at times, on a cross. Allusions to Christ are everywhere. An opponent's outlandish use of a staple gun makes Randy's back look as if it's been lashed. Cassidy even mentions the carnage in "The Passion of the Christ."

"The Wrester" is predictable, corny, heavy-handed, but with Rourke on the wire and acting his heart out, it gets into your bloodstream. Darren Aronofsky's style is radically subjective; his vocabulary changes to match his characters' altered states. The nature of the high is different in every movie. It was swirling and fractured in "Pi," feverish and then hazy in the junkie drama "Requiem for a Dream," and transcendentally romantic in the over-the-top epic "The Fountain."

In "The Wrestler," he induces a state of masochistic ecstasy, the oneness Randy feels with the universe when he's in that mythically garish costume and is pummeled and cut and watches his blood fly onto the canvass before shrieking crowds. Even though the wrestlers are friendly backstage and clue one another in to the abuse to come, the pounding they take is ferocious, and we see the world through Randy's swimming perceptions. We see that smashing other people's heads and getting his own smashed back really does complete him. Next to these bouts, the ones in "Raging Bull" seem like Japanese tea ceremonies. In one scene, Randy hides a small razor in his costume and, down for the count, slices open his face to make the gore even splashier. He rises in triumph, and throws back his head. It's as if he's saying, I bleed, therefore I am.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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