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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Foxcatcher


Three and a Half Stars

U.S.: Bennett Miller, 2014

When a movie comedian goes dramatic, the results can be devastating—as Steve Carell proves again in Foxcatcher.

Remember Alec Guinness as stiff-upper-lipped Col. Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai? Or the late, great Robin Williams as the unorthodox teacher in The Dead Poets Society? That special gift that a top comic actor usually possesses in abundance — knowing how to hit the audience’s funny bone, how to make sport of all the flaws, foibles and vulnerable humanity of their roles —  can be  invaluable when or if a movie  starts turning those laughs inside out. An expert movie comedy actor — a Chaplin, a Peter Sellers, a Takeshi Kitano, a Woody Allen, a Bill Murray, or the Steve Carell of The 40-Year Old Virgin and of  TV’s “The Office” — can  convey the dark side as well as the lighter ones, play successfully for trauma and tears as well as for laughter.

That’s what happens in director Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, a dark, mostly unfunny film in which Carell plays John du Pont of the Pennsylvania du Ponts. It’s a plum role. John was an obsessed wrestling hobbyist and Olympic sports fan, and the somewhat demented scion of the fabulously wealthy du Pont family (of Du Pont chemical industries) — a man who became intensely and dangerously entangled with two highly gifted wrestler-brothers and Olympic athletes from the Midwest, Dave and Mark Schultz (played memorably by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum).

The Schultzes were crack athletes and top-of-the-list  wrestlers, and both of them were Olympic gold medal winners in 1984. Du Pont was not an athlete at all, though he was obviously infatuated with wrestlers and wrestling — especially the Schultz Brothers. But John fancied himself a “coach,” and he used his bountiful money to become a benefactor of the Olympics and the Schultzes, and to lure  Mark (and eventually Dave) to  his posh Pennsylvania farm, called Foxcatcher. There, in his private state-of-the-art wrestling compound and gymnasium,  he flattered the Schultz boys, wrestled with them, bossed them around, and (first Mark, then both of them) got them to move in to Foxcatcher with him — to spearhead a wrestling team and train and work out for the upcoming 1988 Seoul, South Korea Olympics, supposedly under his “tutelage.”

That’s the role that erstwhile funny man Carell is playing, and playing very well — as are Ruffalo and Tatum with their parts.  Foxcatcher, one of the most fascinating and unsettling of all sports movies, probes the psychology of these three as deftly and effectively as it reproduces the routines and regimen of wrestling itself. Miller and his actors — and his script writers (E. Max Frye and Daniel Futterman, who wrote Miller’s Capote) — get under the skins of these real-life characters, and under our skins as well.

In Moneyball, Bennett Miller showed how effectively he could make a realistic, psychologically and sociologically rich sports picture, and he showed in Capote — which won an Oscar for the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman — how good he is at charting obsessions and revealing eccentric protagonists, or in providing the right kind of arena for smart actors like Tatum, Ruffalo and Carell. All three of them, to cop a cliché, nail their parts, but du Pont is the plum role — a man so self-deceiving, so obviously in love with Mark, and so obviously shattered by his inability to control the younger, more attractive guy (or to be the father figure Mark’s older brother Dave is), that we can practically see his psyche crumbling before our eyes.

John tries. And he gets part of what he wants, almost. He flatters Mark, plays at being a coach, delivers clichéd “inspirational” speeches that seem to have been cribbed from Reader‘s Digest, and even slaps Mark around like an angry papa. By indulging in his Olympic fantasies, he’d like to break free of the domination (and the bad opinion) of his formidable, wheelchair-bound mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave, superb as usual), who detests wrestling and lavishes her own affection on the thoroughbred horses in her stables. And he does, almost. He’d also like the Schultz brothers to be his “sons,“ to be under his thumb — something that John almost accomplishes at first with Mark (who is dazzled at his first sight of Foxcatcher, and the world of wealth and privilege to which he‘s brought from scrappy, small town Wisconsin), but that he never can manage with the savvier, more self-confident Dave. Watching all this are du Pont’s loyal employees Jack (Anthony Michael Hall) and Henry Beck (Guy Boyd), and later, Dave‘s wife Nancy (Sienna Miller). All of them we suspect, can guess what’s going on, but are powerless to try to stop the approaching emotional train wreck.

Nobody (at least nobody that we see) interferes with du Pont, or tries to counsel him on the foolishness, derangement and  the destructiveness of his behavior (which includes a cocaine habit) — probably because du Pont, the princeling of the long-lived chemical and gunpowder company, has too much money and power to mess with. He’s almost impregnable. Carell, with great subtlety, paints the kinks of this spoiled rich kid and athletic wannabe, lost in his homoerotic fantasy of comrades-in-sport (and so socially awkward that his mother had to pay for his boyhood playmate), and shows how and why he can’t get what he wants — and why, when he can‘t, he cracks.

Steve Carell is a master of playing uptight, or sexually repressed, or self-deceiving characters. Here he plays a man so uptight and so repressed, and so filled with inchoate longing and twisted, tormenting sexuality that, bad as his behavior is, you almost can’t help feeling a little sorry for him. Almost. Carell plays du Pont also as a creepy rich bully, an awkward man faking athleticism, a strangely distant faker, masquerading as a fairy godfather —  with a dry gray face and a dry gray voice and a wary, infatuated stare that envelops his victims in a dry, gray, phony-fatherly embrace. As he peers up through the swamp of his self-delusion, John’s eyes have a deadpan humorless intensity that  almost makes your spine prickle. So besotted is Carell’s du Pont with his sense of entitlement and with the spurious role of sports daddy that he‘s assigned himself (unforgettably, in a slanted sports documentary, starring himself and Mark, that he commissions and watches at a crucial point),  that, toward  the climax of the movie and of the end of du Pont’s peculiar road, he seems to be disintegrating, crumbling into dry gray ash.

The film Foxcatcher sometimes has a dry, gray, sunless look about it too — even though cinematographer Greig Fraser and production designed Jess Gonchor deliberately bring in richer colors and a more sensuous palette when  Mark flies from Wisconsin to Foxcatcher. But it’s packed with thoughtful writing and good acting. Carell is excellent, and if he gets the Oscar Best Actor nomination some pundits are predicting for him, he’ll have richly deserved it. Tatum and Ruffalo are excellent too. They’ve obviously worked hard to master the wrestling moves and routines that the parts require and the air of expertise that both the Schultzes had. (The real-life Dave was inducted later in the wrestling hall of fame). They’ve also mastered their human qualities and the special relationship between them — and between both of them and their would-be mentor/tormentor.

Carell’s du Pont may be lost in his own little world, his painstakingly constructed fantasy role of the benevolent fatherly coach of Foxcatcher, but Tatum‘s Mark, with his hunky shambling gait and James Dean-ish mixed-up-kid stares,  is lost in another world too — in the fantasies of acceptance and validation that du Pont and Foxcatcher seem to be offering him. And Dave, the most level-headed and straight-thinking and sensible of the trio somehow can’t elude du  Pont either — and the edge that du Pont’s riches and social position confer, and the catastrophe awaiting them. As all three of them grapple and hug and play and fight and wrestle with each other, in Foxcatcher’s plush environs, you can almost start to sink into those multiple fantasies too. Almost.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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