Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Movie Review: Good Performances Propel Uneven 'Foxcatcher'

Steve Carell as John du Pont in "Foxcatcher".                              Sony Pictures Classic
Foxcatcher (2014, directed by Bennett Miller. U.S.A., English, color, 134 minutes) The trouble with making a movie out of a real event is that there are so many facts and stories that can be used for dramatic license and skew reality. Yes, I know movies are a work of fiction, but it doesn't mean you should sacrifice a completely true story for the sake of art.

This is my biggest problem with "Foxcatcher", a true story about John du Pont and his manipulatively obsessive relationships with Olympic gold medalists Mark and Dave Schultz, an obsession that led to the murder of Dave, a two-day standoff at the estate, and the incarceration of du Pont. The media frenzy surrounding these events remain in the annals of Delaware County history.
It's amazing how a story with so much written about it, and even the film makers doing their own meticulous research as well, could incorrectly cross timelines of actual events, and even erase key moments that made this such a firestorm of activity in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

However, what is seen in this film is not bad, just factually skewed and a little unbalanced.

The bulk of the film is about Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), the struggling-to-get-by gold medal winner from the 1984 Olympics and his out-of-the-blue encounter with John (Steve Carell) to join the Foxcatcher Wrestling Team with a nice stipend. In real life, Mark was asked to be an assistant coach for the newly formed wrestling team at Villanova University, not just to be part of du Pont's team. The trials and tribulations of Mark on and off the mat in John's presence seem less draining than was written in his book of the same name, but Tatum and Carell have intensely volatile chemistry together.

As Dave gets sucked into John's web, a power struggle among the three occurs, and, eventually, an outcome that serves as a loss for everyone.

If I didn't know all that I do about the Schultz brothers and du Pont I would think the film was great. Tatum, Carell and Mark Ruffalo (as Dave Schultz) all work well together, though none is Oscar-worthy. It's quite a turn in roles for Tatum, and Ruffalo fully grasped the real Dave Schultz - as his widow, Nancy, told me at the Philadelphia premiere of the film.

The focus seems to be on Carell, who is getting unprecedented Oscar attention for his colorless look and prosthetic nose. He doesn't look like the same du Pont shown in countless photographs from the same time period, instead coming off as doughier and rigid. Carell doesn't do much acting, it's all in the nose. He sits/stands around with his head upturned a bit and speaks in a monotonous tone.

What's worse is that we don't see much of the bizarre behavior that has been reported about the unstable millionaire. Screenwriters Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye keep a shell of a character of du Pont in the film, and briefly show glimpses of the real person as he buys a tank, talks of his bought childhood friend, and fires his gun during a wrestling practice. It doesn't work the way they sprinkled in these little nuggets, being used as random portals into du Pont's mind but are never seen or heard of again. Long-term showings of his oddities would be better then spontaneous shots that explain nothing.

To even out these oddities is Vanessa Redgrave, who plays John's mother. In only three scenes, and one where she actually speaks, Redgrave is more emotional and intriguing than the written character Carell was presented with. I guess they needed a human element to the story of the otherworldly du Pont.

"Foxcatcher" is more focused on Carell's lackluster transformation into du Pont than it is about telling a cohesive story. It's like a mish-mash of du Pont's more aberrant moments put together to make a movie. There is so much more than is presented here. Bennett Miller did well directing the material he had though. It's a good effort, but I can't overlook how they can write out a two-day standoff at Foxcatcher Farm and make it seem like he was arrested two minutes after the shooting.

It's really too bad because there is a great story here. I just wish they told it better, and factually correct.

Rating: C

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