Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Foxcatcher

There's a point in Foxcatcher—the climax of the movie, of sorts—where I thought to myself, "Oh, crap, I remember when that happened!"

This sometimes happens in "based on a true story" movies. You weren't really paying attention when they were news, then suddenly the clown car crashes into the sour cream tanker and you go, "Oh, hell, yeah, I had forgotten about the great sour cream/clown pileup on the I-5."

Foxcatcher is the story of John E. DuPont's attempt to make his family estate (the eponymous Foxcatcher Estate) the seat of U.S. Olympic Wrestling. To this end he enlists the help of a couple of gold-medal winning wrestling brothers, Mark and David Schultz.

It all works out beautifully, of course, and the US goes on to dominate wrestling in the next 10 Olympics.

Heh.

As if!

DuPont is, shall we say, a little bit off. Weird under the best of circumstances, living in the long shadow of his famous family, in their massive estate with only his disapproving mother as a companion. He makes patriotic gestures, tries to set up himself up as a leader of a team in a field he has no real expertise in, and engineers minor accomplishments to try to measure up.

That's him at his best. At his worst, he's capricious, manic or depressive, spacey, dazed, drug-addled, violent, dissociated and just plain discomfiting.

At first, he can only lure Mark Schultz to his Valley Forge home, the younger and dimmer member of the team. Schultz, despite being an Olympic gold medalist, has poor prospects in life, delivering truly awful motivational speeches for 20 bucks a pop at local grade schools. To put it in perspective, when DuPont asks him to name his price, he says $25K/year, because it's the most money he could imagine.

Du Pont and Mark bond pretty quickly, and this is followed by a series of feel-good photoshoots and PR stunts about how they're the future of wrestling. (Just in case you thought the media hasn't always been bought and paid for.) Du Pont gets Mark into drugs, which is just a bad idea on a lot of levels, and soon the two have a conflict that can't be smoothed over with cocaine and cut-rate trophies.

David is persuaded to join the team, presumably with a much larger sum of money, but this creates even more tensions.

It's kind of dry. The sense The Boy and I got was that there was this desire to adhere to the facts in the actual story, which while admirable, can derail the sort of dramatic buildup that makes a good narrative.

Outstanding acting from the three principals, all of whom are playing against type: Channing Tatum plays Mark, and while Tatum is certainly no stranger to playing an athlete, Mark Schultz is not someone with a lot of charisma or social skills. (Schultz co-wrote the book that inspired this.)

Mark Ruffalo—and this may sound odd—plays a normal guy. For as long as I can remember him, which goes back to 2000's You Can Count On Me, he's been playing mopes, Sad Sacks and losers, down-on-their-luck and not likely to get a break.

I mean, fercryinoutloud, when he's in a superhero movie, who does he play? Bruce Banner. The Sylvia Plath of alter egos.

In this, Ruffalo plays the sensible brother. Good natured, not overawed by money, with a strong sense of doing what's right by his family. He helps Mark out, but encourages him to take the opportunity with Du Pont—to spread his wings and try to succeed on his own. (Mark, for his part, harbors some serious resentment.)

I mean, I guess it's not necessarily a hard role, but you don't see Ruffalo do it much. If ever. Most of his mannerisms are different, too, though later on, when things get stressful, you seem some of the classic Ruffalo hands-through-the-hair moves.

As John "Golden Eagle" du Pont, Steve Carell is bound to get a lot of attention for his role as the weird, dangerous billionaire who is completely flummoxed at the notion that someone might actually not have a price. And he is good. You'll barely recognize him at first, although, much like Ruffalo, certain Carell-isms come to the fore from time-to-time.

It's good work but is it good enough to sustain a whole movie? Well, sure, but not always a compelling one. Bennett Miller's previous work (Capote, Moneyball), also based on true stories, was more entertaining, I think (and also less rigorous with the facts).

We didn't hate it. We sort of liked it. But it's 2 hours of tension, really, which isn't great entertainment.

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