February 13, 2009

Notoriously Wrestling with Che

(otherwise known as my misguided attempt to review three movies at the same time)

"You know very well, who you are;
Don't let 'em hold you down, reach for the stars..."

So goes the well known chorus to "Juicy", the career-making debut single by the late Christopher Wallace, (known to the world as the Notorious B.I.G. or, more endearingly, just "Biggie"). On its own the chorus is a blandly inspiring slogan, but in the context of the song, and more importantly in the context of Biggie's life, it speaks to the stalwart determination of a man to prove his worth even when others weren't questioning it.

If that sounds familiar, it's because we've seen the same story told in three recent movies: Notorious, The Wrestler, and Che, all three of which illustrate the lives of men who just didn't know when to say "when". From my perspective it doesn't really matter that two of them are about real people and one of them is not. As Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Mickey Rourke is essentially playing himself. Conversely, both Christopher Wallace and Che Guevara have been mythologized to the point that they can almost be viewed as fictional characters.

I'm not saying that the three men lived similar lives; on the surface they could hardly be more different. I'm saying that they shared an inner struggle that no one else could understand - one that transcended their wildly different educational, cultural, and familial backgrounds: a primal need for acceptance. Acceptance from world powers (Che), acceptance from peers (Notorious), and acceptance from themselves (The Wrestler). Driven almost mad in seeking this acceptance and never finding themselves satisfied, all three of their lives traversed a path that, in hindsight, was all too predictable.

Tragically and perhaps not surprisingly, each of these men had extremely difficult relationships with their families (shown above). Not only did all three have failed marriages, but they also had children from whom they were estranged, if they knew them at all. I admit knowing little about the inner workings of each of their families, but it's apparent to me that Wallace, Robinson, and Guevara were simply too caught up in their future to realize what they were leaving in the past, family ties included.

You can hardly blame them, in one way, since at the height of each of their popularity they were admired by hundreds, thousands, or millions (depending on the character) of people. Like most iconic figures, their time in the limelight was intense yet fleeting, with much of their influence being realized after their careers peaked.

So how do the movies measure up when it comes to drawing us into the lives of these men? A brief look at each:

- Che: Directed by Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Thirteen), it's a two-part epic that surprisingly keeps you engaged for a full four and a half hours, mostly due to a magnetic performance by Benicio del Toro. It's the same type of work he continues to do (most recently in Things We Lost in the Fire) with little fanfare and even less recognition from Hollywood award-givers. For what must have been one of the most challenging roles of his career, it's a shame so few people have taken the time to appreciate it.

Whether Che is a humanizing biopic or a historical epic isn't as obvious as it may seem on first viewing, but either way it's an engaging, informative film that, in my opinion, was long overdue. I expect this will be looked back on as a major achievement by Soderbergh, but in the meantime it's only an honorable mention as one of the best films of 2008.

Grade: A-

- Notorious: What's apparent throughout this straightforward retelling of Biggie's meteoric rise is that it's meant to shine a blindingly positive light on the rapper's life and career. If you weren't hip to the production details before seeing it, it will make a lot of sense in the end credits when you see Voletta Wallace (Biggie's mother) and Sean Combs listed as executive producers. I can actually respect Combs for allowing Derek Luke (Miracle at St. Anna) to play him as a young, cocky producer with an immediately recognizable goofy dance, but I'm not sure I'm OK with the movie covering Biggie's entire career and essentially glossing over all the interesting details. It plays like an adaptation of an article from The Source magazine - luxurious living and backstage belligerence, but little analysis of what was actually motivating the artist.

Despite Jamal Woolard's eye-popping turn as the title figure, when it comes down to it Notorious simply falls short of its potential, which of course wasn't the case with the actual man. If nothing else he deserves a treatment that attempts to illustrate his impressive inner drive. For comparison, the Oscar-nominated documentary Tupac: Resurrection wasn't perfect, but at the very least it leaves you much more interested in its subject. Notorious just leaves you singing "Juicy" for a few days - in which case you could just listen to the album instead.

Grade: B-

- The Wrestler: Certainly one of the most surprising movies of 2008 (and one that clocked in at #7 on my year-end list), The Wrestler continues the recent trend of not actually being about what you think it's about - Blindsight, Surfwise, and Trouble the Water serving as other recent examples. Darren Aronofsky seems to get a kick out of giving his films ambiguous titles (The Fighter is due out this year or next), which piques your interest without raising your expectations too high. He really has to be given credit for making films that are different enough to defy easy categorization, yet still exist within some kind of similar genre. You never know what you're going to get, and I find that refreshing.

From this point on, the same should really be said for Mickey Rourke as well. Although he's admitted that he felt he'd turned in a strong performance immediately after wrapping on the set, I'm not sure how obvious it might have been in the moment that he'd dialed in one of the best acting jobs of the decade. People will say it's easy because his career path has been so similar to his character's, but I'm not sure how quickly I buy that sentiment. Try acting as yourself at another age in your life, maybe 10 years ago - or 10 years from now, to make things even more difficult. There's a lot of nuance to that kind of performance, and Rourke must have found it challenging to separate himself completely from the character, allowing "The Ram" to exist as a wholly unique man. His success in doing so accounts for as much of the excellence of the overall film as Aronofsky's direction or Robert Siegel's screenplay.

Grade: A

So I guess I didn't conclusively answer the question I posed prior to those brief synopses, but in short I think i could say this: Che and Notorious do well in telling the story of two men, but don't necessarily offer enough under-the-surface insights as to what was going on in their heads. The Wrestler has the advantage of covering a much shorter period of its character's life, and it doesn't waste a minute in portraying "The Ram" as a completely realistic guy who could be struggling along in any city in America.

For that reason - its ability to provide the most depth and authenticity to its central character - I have to consider The Wrestler as the best of the bunch.


  1. Neat idea for a write-up, Daniel.

    I too love The Wrestler!

    And I agree with the very significant problems of the other two movies. They recount history, but unfortunately little more.

  2. Great insight. I could see these three playing as a Midnight Triple Feature...probably only playing at my house but nevertheless, it's be a cool night. Glad to hear The Wrestler made your Top 10, it was my numero uno of '08.

  3. Thanks, guys. It was interesting thinking about these in relation to each other, even though it wasn't obvious as I was watching any of them.

    Plus I have to admit I just wanted to get something written on each of them and this was the laziest way to do it...

    Glad you both concur that The Wrestler was the gem of the bunch.

  4. The Wrestler certainly is amazing.

    Still dying to see Che, and will probably see Notorious this weekend if I am not too busy - I'm curious about it.

  5. Well Notorious may be more appreciated if you don't already know a lot about Christopher Wallace. It was interesting to see an actor resemble him so much, but I was just expecting a more enriching backstory to the man. Plus I just saw like three minutes of Tupac: Resurrection again on TV the other day, and just in that little snippet there was more interesting material than in almost all of Notorious.

    But I'll be interested to hear what you think - if you in any way enjoy his music than it's probably worth your time.


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