Tribeca Reviews: There’s Something About Mickey and ‘Ashby’
A few years ago, it would have been quite easy to say Mickey Rourke’s career had suffered in darkness. His heyday was in the 1980s, when his churlish grin and avid stare melted hearts — particularly when tantalizing Kim Basinger with food from the fridge in 9 1/2 Weeks (1986) or holding down the fort as Faye Dunaway’s slurry-mouthed partner in Barfly (1987). That’s not to say he hasn’t been acting since then. He’s been prolific, appearing in nearly 40 films between 1987 and 2008. And then he came to light — 2008 became the year of Mickey and his alter ego, “The Ram.”
Playing Randy “The Ram” Robinson in the highly lauded film, The Wrestler, Rourke trounced onto the Hollywood scene in larger-than-life fashion as an aging professional wrestler who had nothing to show for his life but a few tattoos, his taffy-yellow coif, and a rocking, albeit scarred, body. Rourke’s performance won him much acclaim, including a 2009 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture and an Academy Award nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role. As in his earlier films, Rourke’s character becomes involved with a woman, who turns and twists alongside him in a tormented trek through the drudgeries of life. Marisa Tomei’s astounding performance as an aging stripper brought her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.
Fast forward seven years and nine films later, and Rourke has again proven himself an actor worthy of the coveted golden statue, even if his co-star is a teenage boy. His latest project, Ashby, was written and directed by Australian-born Tony McNamara and had its premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. In a sea of mediocre offerings at this year’s fest, Ashby stands out for its original plot, dark and quirky humor, and convincing portrayals.
When Ed Wallis (played by Nat Wolff) and his mother June (played with effervescent raunch by Sarah Silverman) move to Virginia after her divorce, the small town’s eligible men embrace the sexually liberated 40-something mom, while her teenage son, an avid reader of Hemingway, struggles for acceptance in his new high school. An English project draws Ed into the mysterious world of his aging next-door neighbor, Ashby Holt (Mickey Rourke), whose recent prognosis challenges him to rebuff his CIA world of multiple passports and assassinations in search of redemption. A charming performance by Emma Roberts (“American Horror Story,” 2013-2015) as the geeky Eloise, whose after-school interests include following the brain changes of the school’s football players by conducting MRIs in her basement, rounds out this foursome of misfits trying to make sense of loss and acceptance.
While loss is a central theme of Ashby, McNamara’s witty dialogue and bombastic scenes remind us that holding on to the past holds us back from the future. Ashby’s loss is his family and moral compass; Ed longs for his absentee father; Eloise’s mother has died and her neurologist father’s second marriage is his profession; and June is struggling to be a 40-something divorcee and single mother, whose husband ran off with another. An overeager writer and director could have turned such storylines into solipsistic tropes, whereby a sappy sledgehammer whacks emotional gravitas to death. And on the surface, he flirted with disaster: the scenes in the locker room and classroom border on cardboard caricatures, but one can forgive this, perhaps, in that he seems to offer a nod to cinema-past and the “grandparent syndrome” we’ve all experienced — “things were so much better back in my day.” All-in-all, McNamara holds back just enough to allow for pauses and introspection of his four main characters, making for a gratifying 100 minutes of cinema.
Rourke excels at playing the conflicted man. When Ashby finally confesses to Ed about his profession, he boasts of killing nearly 100 people in the defense of American freedom and liberty, but his rigid stance and furrowed brow foreshadows a softening of the heart in his search for forgiveness. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the relationship between Ashby and Ed fulfills for each what they most lack: a meaningful human bond. Many of Rourke’s most memorable and convincing roles have positioned him precisely here, but this time, it’s with a teenage boy not a sexpot, aging or otherwise.
The father-son bond that develops between the curmudgeonly assassin and the sensitive high schooler is poignant in its awkwardness. Due to his illness, Ashby is no longer able to drive; Ed becomes his chauffeur. At times Ashby talks to Ed as if he’s another CIA agent, giving deadpan advice on symbolically killing off his deadbeat dad. He’s crude, cold, and unforgiving. But then McNamara inserts a scene at the cemetery, where Ashby, having just visited the graves of his wife and daughter, is so stricken with grief that the giddiness of his teenage driver is more than he can bear. The energy between them is kinetic and underscores a mentor-mentee relationship that is more than merely two characters in front of a camera lens.
Wolff’s a rising star in young Hollywood, most notably for his roles in The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and Paper Towns (due out in cinemas on July 24). It came out this week that he’s rumored to be a Peter Parker front man for the next Spider-Man franchise, although the actor denies any knowledge of this. During the Q&A with McNamara at the film’s screening, a mother of a 16-year-old son praised him for creating such a realistic character. McNamara laughed and said he, too, had a son of similar age.
Praise must also be offered to Wolff, however, for his portrayal of the youth-in-confusion. He devours Ed’s esprit like a boy presented with a three-tiered chocolate birthday cake. This is a kid who wants to love life and pushes himself when no one else does, leading to some hilariously delicious scenes. He’s set up a training camp in his backyard to improve his chances — as the gangly, geeky kid — to make the football team, running and crashing into various objects to toughen himself up (you can just picture him as Spidey scaling tall buildings in a year or two). Just when he’s about to give up, Ed finds strength not only from Ashby but also from his own inner voice, which grows louder as the story progresses.
And then there’s the first (un)kiss between Ed and Eloise. It’s a scene that’s been filmed for decades, but more often than not is served lukewarm. Wolff and Roberts might just have perfected that moment when a kiss is about to happen, should happen, but alas, teenage ambiguity sets in and mucks the whole thing up. Despite what doesn’t happen, the scene leaves us craving a pitcher of icy sweet tea on a hot Virginia summer day.
It takes a lot to get an original screenplay through the remake and franchise gates of Hollywood these days, but with another outstanding performance by Rourke and the talents of young Wolff, there’s just something about Ashby that could make it happen.
“Ashby,” which runs at 101 minutes, premiered April 19 at the Tribeca Film Festival. For information about the festival, you can visit the TFF’s official Web site by clicking here.