Foxcatcher


Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

Steve Carell suggests to Channing Tatum that he do an American version of a British sitcom to further his career.

(2014) True Life Drama (Sony Classics) Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall, Guy Boyd, Brett Rice, Jackson Frazer, Samara Lee, Francis J. Murphy III, Jane Mowder, David Bennett, Lee Perkins, Robert Haramia, Daniel Hilt, Bryan Cook, David Zabriskie, Frederick Feeney, Alan Oppenheimer (voice). Directed by Bennett Miller

The making of a tragedy doesn’t necessarily unfold the way you’d expect. Sometimes there is a slow build in which there is a feeling of inevitability (but only when you look back). Most times it appears suddenly and without warning, turning lives and families upside down.

Mark Schultz (Tatum) is an Olympic gold medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling from the 1984 Olympics but that doesn’t buy many groceries. He is subsisting on ramen, wrestling practice with his brother Dave (Ruffalo) who is a coach at the local college which supports his budding family including wife Nancy (Miller). Then Mark gets a bizarre phone call from one of the richest men in America – well, one of his flunkies – John DuPont (Carell), who wants to meet with Schultz. Mark doesn’t really have anything better to do so he heads out there.

It turns out that John, a kind of diffident, odd duck of a man has a thing for wrestling.  A big thing. He also has a bit of a patriotic streak. America’s wrestling program is chronically underfunded with facilities that can only be called archaic. DuPont wants to change all that, building a state-of-the-art world-class wrestling facility on his family estate, Foxcatcher Farm. Mark, who doesn’t get enthusiastic about much, is enthusiastic about this. He pleads with his brother to come on board, but Dave – who like Mark underwent a vagabond-like childhood, moving from place to place – doesn’t want to put his children through the same thing and refuses to uproot them to move to the countryside outside of Philadelphia. Mark goes it alone.

Other wrestlers are brought on board but Mark is clearly DuPont’s favorite and when Mark wins the world championships that year, DuPont is clearly thrilled, taking Mark’s success as his success. In turn, Mark looks up at DuPont as a father figure.

Things begin to go sour though. DuPont introduces Mark to cocaine and Mark soon becomes addicted, skipping out on practices and showing up high or drunk. DuPont is concerned and brings in Dave to help right the ship, but Mark is clearly in an unhealthy place. Can his brother help pull the budding superstar out of his downward spiral in time for Olympic glory in Seoul?

This is clearly a morality play, as Bennett Miller’s two previous movies have been (Capote, Moneyball) but it’s also at the same time more than that. When you look back on it after having seen it, you’ll understand that there is also a randomness to the events, none of which would spell out the conclusion. In fact, Miller suggests, life sometimes isn’t a succession from A to Z. Sometimes it leaps around and ends up at Z after having gone from C to E to Q, followed by a stint in Chinese and Arabic characters, numerals and symbols.

There is a kind of chill in the look of the film, from the stark apartment Mark lives in at the beginning, the snow-covered farm in winter, even the somewhat antiseptic look of Foxcatcher itself. John DuPont tends to bottle up his emotions, often staring into space, wanting to say something, catching himself, and saying something else. The coldness of the film is a reflection of DuPont himself, and the slow, methodical unfolding of the story is also a reflection of DuPont, who speaks in a very deliberate manner.

What stands out here more than the story are the performances. Carell has been getting Oscar buzz since the film’s festival premiere and is almost a lock to get a nomination next week and, in my opinion, deservedly so. He underplays DuPont rather than overplays him, making him kind of the ultimate straight man, prone to eccentricities and never quite sure if he’s the butt of the joke or not. He is also a very wealthy man and he is used to being treated with deference. He is also a bit of a lonely boy, having had no friends other than those his mother (Redgrave) paid for. He is desperately trying to please her, but she thinks wrestling is “low” and he thinks that horses, which she has spent her life raising and riding, are “dumb.”

More surprising (and less talked about) are the performances of Tatum and Ruffalo. Tatum, who at one time was more of a pretty boy than an actor, has delivered the best performance of his career. I have to admit, he’s been getting steadily better and here he blossoms, showing that he can be as good an actor as anyone. There’s a scene where his frustration boils over in a hotel room and, furious at himself for not turning in an acceptable effort at least as far as he’s concerned, begins slapping himself in the face before graduating to pounding his fist on the walls and eventually, smashing his head into a mirror (which was ad libbed by the way – Tatum was initially not supposed to go that far). He has a kind of simian profile and at times a thousand yard stare that is positively chilling.

Ruffalo has in many ways the toughest job of the three. Dave is likable, supportive and charismatic. He makes it clear why everyone loved Dave Schultz who knew him – and plenty of people who didn’t. In many ways it’s kind of a white bread role but Ruffalo gives it depth and meaning. He was nominated for a Supporting Actor Drama Golden Globe and has a good shot at an Oscar nomination, but at the Globes ran into the J.K. Simmons buzzsaw from Whiplash and likely will again but that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful performance and in most any other year would be a clear Oscar favorite for the win.

Foxcatcher is a fairly dark film and might leave you feeling down, but there is something about it that carries a touch of the resilience of the human spirit. One character in particular escapes the alluring snare of Foxcatcher the training facility and ends up becoming better for it. This is definitely a movie that demands to be seen, particularly by those who are lovers of good movies, and it is definitely one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome performances by Carell, Ruffalo and Tatum. No foreshadowing of final scenes which makes them even more shocking to those not familiar with the story.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe too laid-back and slow.
FAMILY VALUES: Depictions of drug use and one scene of disturbing violence are what got this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The glasses that Ruffalo wears in the film are Dave Schultz’ actual glasses, given to him by Schultz’ widow Nancy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Imitation Game

Advertisements

How Do You Know


How Do You Know

Paul Rudd comforts Reese Witherspoon who has just realized that she's made a bomb.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Columbia) Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn, Mark Linn-Baker, Lenny Venito, Ron McLarty, Molly Price, John Tormey, Tony Shalhoub, Dean Norris, Teyonah Parris, Shelley Conn. Directed by James L. Brooks

Love is like the wind. You can’t hold it easily in your hands and sometimes you’re not even sure it’s there at all. Is that breeze you’re feeling the beginnings of love or just the air conditioning?

Lisa (Witherspoon) sure doesn’t know. Once the face of the U.S. Softball Team, she’s won Olympic gold and world championships. Now, she’s in the twilight of her career and as the 2011 team is being selected, a jerk of a coach (Norris) decides that her best days are behind her.

She hooks up with Matty (Wilson) after being set up by a friend. He is a pitcher for the major league Washington Nationals who is good looking, charming and completely self-obsessed. Maybe this is what Lisa needs to get out of her funk; her good friend Sally (Price) doesn’t think so but hey, you always support your teammate no matter what.

George (Rudd) is going through some tough times of his own. He is being investigated by the federal government for something he didn’t do, although it happened on his watch. He had taken over the reins of his father’s company and dear old dad (Nicholson) is being left with the terrible choice of supporting his son or the company he spent a lifetime building. The law specifies that he has to do the latter, so the lawyer (Linn-Baker) that George would have chosen can’t represent him because he’s being paid by the company and there’s a conflict of interest.

George and Lisa go out on a blind date on the worst day of both of their lives, set up by one of Lisa’s teammates who knew George. The first time they were to get together, George was already dating Terry (Conn) who was throwing herself into her work as a scientist more than she was throwing herself into the relationship. When the feces hit the fan for George, she distanced herself from him, not wanting the drama to get in the way of her work. Ain’t modern relationships grand? However, now that Terry’s out of the picture and George is feeling particularly lonely, he decides to take a shot at the blind date, urged on by his assistant Annie (Hahn) who seems to have a weird fixation on him, despite being pregnant by a guy she loves very much.

Anyway, by all measures the date between George and Lisa is a complete disaster except that for George, it’s just what the doctor ordered. He falls hard for Lisa, who in the meantime is getting closer to Matty who treats her nicely and despite being more of a narcissist than most of us will ever be, is at least trying to be the right guy for her. George’s persistence pays off as his woebegone puppy charm begins to wear her down.

So Lisa is faced with George and Matty. Both good men, both clearly in love with her, but which one is she in love with? Or maybe she doesn’t love either of them? What is her future going to bring? Why did her agent get her into this movie? 

This is one of the cases where a fine cast, a terrific director and an interesting idea for a movie turn out to be disappointing. It has all the ingredients – Brooks, whose pedigree include classics like Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets, for example. Obviously he has a knack for directing romantic comedies. A terrific cast of very likable actors doesn’t hurt either. I even like the love triangle concept. So why don’t I love this movie?

One of the problems I have with it is that it treats its viewers like five-year-olds. It constantly re-emphasizes that George and Lisa are at a crisis in their lives, and that Matty is self-centered. It belabors the point so much you just want to get out of your seat, run up to the projection booth, grab the projectionist by the neck and scream into his face “WE GET IT! WE UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY! NOW MOVE ON, WOULD YOU PLEASE?!?”

Of course, that would never happen – most movies are shown digitally these days anyway, so projectionists are going the way of ushers. Be that as it may, that leaves the performances and for the most part they’re pretty good. There’s a terrific scene near the end of the movie when Lisa makes her choice and the spurned suitor hugs her and says quietly “What did I do wrong?” The heartbreak is very evident in his voice and it is one of the finest acting moments of his career (won’t tell you who it is in case you plan to see the movie, although you can probably guess who it is).

Nicholson is always entertaining and he blusters his way through this, although you never get the impression he really believes that he’s making a great movie but is more doing a favor for a friend. Witherspoon is one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood and she’s quite accomplished at the romantic comedy genre; she is not at the top of her game here, but close enough that she performs solidly. Owen Wilson is also pretty good in his role. I might have liked the movie if his character hadn’t been quite so self-centered. It would seem, on paper, an easy call for Lisa to make; I would have liked it if both of the guys that were falling for her were less projects and more really good guys who each deserved her and whom she cared for. That would have made the difficulty of her position more pronounced and, dare I say it, more realistic. At least, I would have found it more entertaining that way.

Another problem is Rudd’s character. Not because of his performance, which captures the neuroses of the character nicely; the problem is that the character is poorly written. He seems to be incapable of taking any bad news, but yet he was running what apparently was a very large and profitable company. Bad news kind of comes with that kind of territory, you know? He’s also supposed to be a “good man” – and he is, but good doesn’t mean wimpy. He apparently doesn’t have any sort of spine whatsoever, making it very tough to identify with him despite all of Rudd’s best efforts to make him charming.

The main problem I have with the movie is its length. Due to all the overemphasis on the movie’s main plot points, it feels like the movie runs long by a good half hour if not more. I was definitely getting fidgety at the end, something I don’t normally do for good movies.

The crying shame is that this could have been a good movie, and I really wanted it to be. The cast is likable, the behind the camera talent is extremely strong and the concept could have made for a good movie. One suspects that unseen hands were tinkering with this movie, particularly in the editing phase. A stronger hand on the scissors might have made this sleeker, leaner and more entertaining. Ah well, there’s always the fast forward button when this comes out on home video; that way you can make your own edit.

REASONS TO GO: Reese Witherspoon is a very beautiful woman. Jack Nicholson is worth seeing whenever you get the opportunity.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a good half hour too long. Far too much dithering going on here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and some mildly bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of the father was originally offered to Bill Murray who turned it down.

HOME OR THEATER: If you watch it at home at least you can get up and leave without bothering anybody.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The King’s Speech