At The Movies With Josh:

I never liked wrestling. Even as a little kid, fake sports didn’t entertain me. I loved the Harlem Globetrotters, until I started playing basketball in 4th grade and realized the Washington Generals weren’t playing defense properly (although they still did enough fun things on the court that made it entertaining). As David Letterman once said about wrestling, “I knew it was fake when I was watching a match as a kid at Madison Square Garden. And this wrestler grabbed a chair from outside the ring, and smashed the other guy over the head. He wasn’t arrested for it, and there wasn’t a thing about it in the newspaper the next day.”

While I’ve never been a fan of the sport, I’ve enjoyed movies about it. “The Wrestler” (Mickey Rourke in the Darren Aronfsky film) was one of the best movies of 2008. This year, I enjoyed the true story “Cassandro” (Gael Garcia Bernal). This second wrestling movie of the year is also based on a true story, and is a heartbreaking family saga that will shock you. I was shocked to see Zac Efron with more muscles than most bodybuilders (and to think, I was always impressed with De Niro gaining 40 pounds for “Raging Bull”; well, Bobby…hold Zac’s beer).

Director Sean Durkin made a good movie, but I felt the pacing was a bit off, and it didn’t resonate the way it should have.

The story of the brothers that all wrestle, is told through the viewpoint of Kevin Von Erich (Efron), the oldest of the bunch. He’s also the brother that wants to succeed in the family business the most. (The movie starts showing the dad wrestling in the ‘50s, with his signature move called the “iron claw” and which the dad is kind of using figuratively, with the hold he has over his family decades later). Kevin doesn’t do well in front of the microphone, and anybody that has seen wrestling knows – the boisterous bravado is a big part of it. His other brother Kerry (Jeremy White from “The Bear”) is an Olympic discus-thrower, but this is the year President Carter decides the U.S. should boycott the Olympics in Russia. Since he can’t go, he decides to join the family business. There’s David (Harris Dickinson from the director’s “Triangle of Sadness”), who is up-and-coming, and has a good relationship with Kevin. Even when it looks like David is the one dad is pushing ahead of Kevin to make it big. The brother that’s even quieter than Kevin, is Mike (Stanley Simons). He’d rather be a musician, and there’s a wonderful scene where we see him perform, while his rowdy brothers root him on, in between doing keg-stands and partying at a frat house. 

Lily James plays Pam May, who is interested in Kevin. She doesn’t believe him when he goes on and on about the “family curse” (he had a brother die at the age of 4, as well as a few other tragedies). By the end of this movie, you might think maybe Kevin was right.

The father is played by Holt McCallany, and it’s a brilliant performance. It’s not some over-powering, pushy dad like we saw in “The Great Santini” or other films. Oh, don’t get me wrong. He’s a total di**, but there are times he’s also praising his kids; or the time he has to promote one over the other two, telling the other two how instrumental they were in that brother's success in the ring. It did feel like the filmmakers pulled their punches (no pun intended) with how they portrayed Fritz, and how his toxic parenting led to the hardships in their lives.

I always love seeing Maura Tierney on screen (see “Diggers” from 2006, one of that year’s underrated films). She plays mom Doris, who uses religion to shield her from the psychological abuse her husband has on the family. And some could argue, with her religious strictness, she can get as damaging when it comes to her kids. There’s one powerful scene where Kevin tries to talk to her about telling his dad to go easier on one brother, and she dismisses him.

I once wrote a cover story for the Reader about Little League dads and soccer moms who live vicariously through their kids' sports. Instead of letting them learn the fundamentals and have fun, it’s about them pushing their kids to win, or play on club teams so they can someday get a scholarship or play pro (which won’t happen for 99% of them). And I’m guessing if you had these parents watch the damage these parents do to their children, they’d learn nothing from it.

There’s something both sad and sweet, about how Kevin just wants to have his brothers around. He’s got this innocence about him (for example, he doesn’t even pick up on women flirting with him), but that’s also rather sad to watch. I was surprised I wasn’t seeing Efron’s name bandied about a bit more during awards season. 

Since over 90% of movies these days have a vomit scene, this had one. And since so many movies go for classic rock needledrops, this had them (Blue Oyster Cult, Tom Petty, and Eddie Money, to name a few).

Watching this, I sat near a movie critic who called it the best movie of the year. His all-time favorite movie is “Boogie Nights” (and that’s certainly in my Top 25 of all-time). I felt this movie had the same feel, but wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been.

My wife disliked this film, and felt it glorified a family that shouldn’t have been.

You don’t have to be a fan of wrestling to like this. I’m not, and I enjoyed the ride.

3 ½ stars out of 5.

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