Wednesday, March 11, 2015




by Don Stradley

How did crazy millionaire John Dupont decide the Schultz brothers could help achieve his dream of sponsoring a wrestling team to represent the US at the 1988  Olympics?  Was it because they were already experienced gold medal winners? Or was it because he sensed they were, at heart, a couple of simpletons to be manipulated?

We don’t quite get the answer in Bennet Miller’s Foxcatcher, a dramatization of a real life case that saw Dupont bring the famous wrestling brothers to his Newtown PA compound and eventually murder one of them.  I’d forgotten the details of the case – I wasn’t sure if Dupont murdered one brother, or both, or if they’d murdered him for his money.  By forgetting the particulars, I enjoyed watching the movie unfold.  But I have no more understanding of the case, and all of its weirdness, than I did before.

DuPont (Steve Carell) was a pathetic figure, a sheltered rich boy whose mother used to pay her chauffer’s son to be his friend. He grew up to be one of those pseudo sportsmen, the rich guy who owns a lot of guns and talks tough, but in reality is just a fat little runt. He had an interest in amateur wrestling, and by the 1980s was harboring a desire to sponsor (and coach) the US Olympic team.  Mysteriously, like a James Bond villain, DuPont invites Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to his Foxcatcher Farm training ground, where Mark is easily impressed by DuPont’s generosity and patriotism.  When we first see Mark, he’s making a speech in front of bunch of bored children, trying to tell them about integrity and honor. They don’t get it. DuPont sucks Mark in by telling him that great Olympic wrestlers should be appreciated by their country. Mark falls for it. Indeed, he laps it up.

Like William Holden in Sunset Blvd, Mark finds himself lured into DuPont’s Norma Desmond type atmosphere.  Mark grew up without a father, and DuPont seems like a reasonable surrogate.  DuPont, too, is friendless, and craves loyalty.  Some will see this as a story about a sugar daddy and his young charge, but there’s nothing sexual going on.  Both Mark and DuPont seem strangely asexual.  What they seem to need goes deeper than sex, and into some wounded area in the soul. They are badly damaged men.

The setup works for a while, and all seems well when  Mark wins a medal at the World Championships. We also see him catering to DuPont, cutting his hair, appearing with him at public gatherings.  They hug a lot. They pose for photographs.  But DuPont’s seediness brings Mark down. In time, the champion athlete is snorting cocaine, and losing his competitive edge.  To correct things, DuPont calls upon Mark’s older brother, the more sensible David (Mark Ruffalo).  David knows more about wrestling, and he knows more about what makes his brother tick.  The downside is that DuPont is slowly squeezed out.  DuPont may be loony, but even he knows there’s no room for him once the brothers are reunited.  Once David arrives, DuPont mopes about like a spurned lover.

Tatum and Ruffalo are convincing as a pair of broken down athletes. They limp around, slightly hunchbacked, their  bodies seeming to ache with every move.  When they train together they butt heads and slap at each other like a pair of mountain gorillas at mating time.  Amateur wrestling is a deadly dull sport,  but Miller makes the wrestling sequences interesting because he closes in on Tatum’s face, especially when an opponent is, literally, wiping the floor with him.  We also see the sport's weird side. There’s a scene where wrestlers grunt and grown for a spot on the American team, their efforts gently applauded by a small audience that might have been at a wine tasting or a fancy dog show.

Ruffalo is very good as David, a man so shaped by his athletic background that when he puts an arm around his brother, we’re not sure if he’s going to hug him or throw him.  Tatum specializes in playing vulnerable meatheads, and as Mark Schultz we see him punching himself in the face, slamming his head into a mirror,  and crying a lot.   But as hard as Tatum tries, we’re never quite moved.  How can we sympathize with a character so dumb that he falls for DuPont’s line of bull, which includes a desire to be called “the Golden Eagle of America”?

Carell, sporting a prosthetic nose and fake teeth, plays John DuPont as a tired old ghost of a man, saying his lines as if he can’t find enough air in his lungs.  There’s a brilliant scene where DuPont gets drunk on champagne and starts challenging his wrestling team. They playfully allow the geezer to take them down.  Half-believing that he’s legitimately taken these young bruisers to the mat, he rises, grinning like a demented kid at his own birthday party.  There are also enough stuffed birds in the house and references to “mother” that DuPont seems like a distant relative of Norman Bates. Miller creates too many scenes where Carell stares into space, as if we’re supposed to guess at the inner demons capering in his mind, but it’s still a strong performance from Carell, now one of our top character actors.

Still, the movie  suffers from a heaviness, and it moves towards its climax with elephantine steps. The final quarter of the movie feels like an extended scene of the three main players sitting in silence, gazing at some dark  unknown.  Did DuPont love Mark?  Did Mark love DuPont?  The real Mark Shultz has gone on record saying he hates the movie and hates Miller.  Facts were fudged, and Foxcatcher is apparently loaded with inaccuracies, but  I can only comment on the movie as presented.  It’s a good one, with good acting.  What keeps it from being great is Miller’s laborious effort to make it seem “important”, as if John DuPont is supposed to represent a kind of decrepit, decadent Americana.  And at 134 minutes, you may find yourself growing weary of the story, no matter how good the acting.


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