Kenny Turan pins ‘The Wrestler’
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If you’re running an Oscar campaign for a low-budget movie that needs all the help it can get from rave reviews, as Fox Searchlight is doing right now with ‘The Wrestler,’ the very last thing you want in life is to open up the L.A. Times and see a scathingly negative review from our lead critic, Kenny Turan, who put the critical equivalent of a Vulcan death grip on the movie. The headline for the review, which took up most of the front page of today’s Calendar section, said it all: ‘As Fake As Wrestling: Despite Mickey Rourke’s performance, the tale doesn’t ring true.’ As any Oscar consultant could tell you, that’s not the kind of headline you want the thousands of academy members who read The Times to see with their morning bagel and coffee.
I admit to being of two minds about Kenny’s review, which calls the movie ‘off-putting and disappointing,’ not to mention ‘hopelessly contrived and predictable.’ On the one hand, I’m a bit baffled that Kenny--who’s a friend--didn’t like the movie more. After all, it offers what critics always say they admire most: uncompromising filmmaking tied to a spirited, emotionally raw acting performance. When I first saw ‘The Wrestler’ at the Toronto Film Festival in early September, I was ecstatic, since it brought two great talents back from the abyss: Mickey Rourke--who had very publicly destroyed his acting career--and the filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who finally fulfilled the promise of his stunning debut, 1998’s ‘Pi,’ after losing his way with a pair of troubled projects, 2000’s ‘Requiem for a Dream’ and ‘The Fountain,’ which had bombed in Toronto in 2006.
On the other hand, even if I disagree with him, I’m happy to see Kenny take such a bold stand, clearly knowing that he’d be largely out of step with the critical establishment, which has lavished praise on ‘The Wrestler,’ a movie destined to turn up on dozens of end-of-the-year critic Top 10 lists. The movie is such a cinematic darling that it currently has a 100 rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the leading online review rating site. (I guess they haven’t posted Kenny’s review, which would obviously bring down the score.) The movie’s been getting raves across the board, from the New Yorker to Variety to Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, who said it was ‘like ‘Rocky’ made by the Scorsese of ‘Mean Streets.’ ' (The film’s only other high-profile detractor has been Time’s Richard Corliss, who after seeing the film in Toronto called it ‘bogus’ and ‘visually inert.’)
Call me old-fashioned. But I admire critics who trust their taste--and are enough of a contrarian--to take a stand, even if they know it’s going to be unpopular with their peers. When I read Kenny’s recent lukewarm review of ‘Milk,’ I suspected that he’d pulled his punches, not wanting to knock a feel-good movie with such a popular following. Kenny’s ‘Wrestler’ review speaks its mind, much as his now-notorious pan of ‘Titanic’ did a decade ago, which inspired weeks of angry letters from its fans (not to mention James Cameron). I thought Kenny was just as wrong about ‘Titanic’ as I think he is about ‘The Wrestler.’ If you care about film, ‘The Wrestler’ is a must-see movie about a beautiful loser trying to hang on to the one thing in his life that keeps his soul intact. I hope Rourke and Aronofsky reap even more rewards from putting so much passion into the project.
Does that mean Kenny was wrong to put a sleeper hold on the film? Should a critic always be in step with the rest of us? Not at all. I’ve had my disagreements with Manohla Dargis (our former critic who’s now at the N.Y. Times), but I value both her ardor and cool analysis, even when I think she’s dead wrong. I guess what I’m saying is that if you admire a critic, its just as important to read them when you’re mad at them as when you’re contentedly nodding your head in agreement. In today’s world, we’re surrounded by round-the-clock advertising, designed to satisfy our every whim. It’s nice to have a few critics around who don’t just soothe us into submission, but can ruffle our feathers too.