“Have you ever seen a one trick pony in the field so happy and free?”

I finally got around to watching The Wrestler this week. When I first saw trailers for the film, I was immediately intrigued. Something about it reminded me of Million Dollar Baby, although now I can’t pinpoint what made me draw that connection. I’m attracted to movies in which the characters are more important than the plot. What affected me about Million Dollar Baby was the ways in which the three main characters (played by Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, and Morgan Freeman, actors whose presence is so singular and overwhelming that I cannot recall the names of their characters) struggle against themselves, against selfish impulses, and with personal demons. This same basic strain runs throughout The Wrestler‘s Randy (played of course by Mickey Rourke), but we do not get to know the other characters (namely Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood) enough to understand their motivations.

The Wrestler did nothing to invite the Million Dollar Baby comparison, though, so I will drop it now. I only mentioned it to explain my person context (however arbitrary) for the film. I expected a quiet and serious contemplation of the ways people treat each other, with wrestling as a kind of backdrop for this character study. That is pretty much what I got, but the effect fell short of my admittedly high expectations.

Where I first became disenchanted with The Wrestler was with all the wrestling. I realize the absurdity in my being shocked by the presence of wrestling in a movie called The Wrestler, but I am content to own that absurdity. Wrestling is kind of gross. I’m told there are different kinds of wrestling so I will allow that perhaps all wrestling isn’t gross, but in The Wrestler, wrestling is gross.

The wrestling in this movie reinforces the sport’s “wrestling is fake” reputation. In this case, “fake” indicates that the fighting—the moves, the stunts, and the knock-outs—is all staged. Indeed, we see the wrestlers working out how each match will go beforehand. The injuries, though, are far from fake. Even when Randy cuts his own forehead with a razor to maximize the blood-and-gore factor, the wound is real.

Ultimately, though, what disappointed me most about The Wrestler was the story’s execution. The basic theme is that Randy has to be a wrestler, even if it kills him, and we are pretty sure it will. I can get behind that idea. There are people who commit so completely to a specific notion of who they are that any other interpretation (even if it isn’t opposing, just adding) becomes impossible. However, the movie spent too much time on the actual wrestling and not enough on exploring Randy’s idea of himself as a wrestler.

Marisa Tomei’s presence in The Wrestler was one of its selling points for me. I really like Marisa. I mean, who doesn’t love My Cousin Vinny? I have seen some bad Marisa Tomei movies but none where Marisa herself was bad. And in The Wrestler, as Cassidy/Pam, she was again very good. The movie took an interesting turn on the stripper angle. Instead of Randy having trouble reconciling Cassidy’s stripper self and Pam’s real world self, it was Pam who couldn’t figure out how to play both roles with the same audience. At the end, it seems as if Pam is trying to bridge the gap, but whether or not she succeeds is one of many questions the movie leaves unanswered.

Finally, there is the issue of Evan Rachel Wood, whom I have adored since her days on Once and Again. As Randy’s daughter, her character is perhaps the biggest question mark of all. Through bits of dialogue, we learn that Randy left his daughter’s life abruptly and she harbors a lot of resentment toward him. His attempts to make amends are achingly tender and sweet, and, of course, he mishandles their tentative truce and likely destroys the relationship for good. All that makes sense, but here is something puzzling. In what feels like a throwaway line, Randy remarks to Pam, while they are shopping for a gift for his daughter, that he suspects she is a lesbian. There is no more mention of her sexuality. What could be the point of the observation if there wasn’t going to be any follow-through?

More attention to follow-through is something The Wrestler could have used. I don’t need my movies tied up with neat bows at the end, but this conclusion barely concluded anything. I didn’t hate the movie, but I couldn’t help but be distracted by what a terrific, moving film it could have been.

The Bruce Springsteen song over the closing credits was quite good, though.