Before I saw Beyond the Mat, I had never paused to consider the sometimes tragic, sometimes sweet, sometimes suburban-regular inner lives of the hulking, misshapen men who willingly hurl other hulking, misshapen men around a ring in the name of professional wrestling. I hadn’t fully appreciated, for example, that just because Mick Foley – the wrestler known as Mankind – has no front teeth and prefers to work in a leather face mask, doesn’t mean he can’t be a gentle father to two little kids.
But Barry W. Blaustein had. As is not uncommon among pop culturati, Blaustein, a comedy screenwriter (he cowrote ”The Nutty Professor”), is also a fan of the spectacle. And in his upbeat, friendly, soft-hitting documentary, he tags along with a handful of players in the multibillion-dollar business of pro wrestling, and gets a few of them to open up.
As a result, ”Beyond the Mat” is entirely dependent on, and shaped by, the ”good stuff” the director happens to get, rather than driven by hard questions a journalist might want answered. He lucks out with access to a meeting between Vince McMahon, the wily head of the World Wrestling Federation, and a pro wannabe whose talent, in addition to general massiveness, is in regurgitating on demand; the lad’s ”nom de artiste,” logically, is Puke.
Blaustein spends a lot of time with veteran Terry Funk, a gentlemanly, religious Texan in his early 50s who continues to court pain even though his body is wrecked, and with Jake ”the Snake” Roberts, a desolate man who hasn’t seen his grown daughter in four years. And he gets nothing but gold from the personable Mankind himself, who says he has set himself a goal of being ”the world’s most polite wrestler.”
”Beyond the Mat” often has the rambling feeling of a home movie Blaustein made for his buddies, with the director himself narrating puckishly as if to say, ”Hey, get a load of this bit. Here’s a cool sound bite from Jesse Ventura.” (The former pro wrestler and current governor of Minnesota observes, probably not for the first time, that ”politics is way more cutthroat than wrestling.”)
But Blaustein’s accommodating, nonjudgmental approach serves him well when he sidles up to the wives and children who love these guys, and who accept that part of loving them is watching blood gush. In the film’s dramatic high point, Mankind’s small son and daughter become hysterically upset when they see Daddy repeatedly smashed and stomped during a match. Blaustein, disturbed by their distress, shows the wrestler footage of their reaction. Then Mankind is disturbed too.
Conclusion? Commentary? None, except that inside many otherwise ordinary guys are maniacs willing to regurgitate on demand if the money’s right.