Foxcatcher has Oscar written all over it. It’s chock full of things the Academy loves: a comedic actor making a dark dramatic turn, a pretty boy actor demanding to be taken seriously, a prestigious director who only makes Oscar bait, a script based off a lurid true story, a long running time, and themes focused on THE DARK UNDERBELLY OF THE AMERICAN DREAM. Critics are coming all over it the way they always do this time of year. Sometimes I wonder if the Academy pays them to overpraise mediocre movies. How the fuck else do you explain Crash winning Best Picture? Forgive me if I sound cynical but Oscar season brings out the worst in me. “What, what”, you say as you puff out your chest and scold me, “what’s wrong with Oscar season? It’s when all the great movies come out, you goddamn grump! Why does it make you mad?” I sigh and hold back a scream before responding. “Because of movies like friggin Foxcatcher”, I finally say as I pour myself another drink.
That’s not to say that the movie is bad. It isn’t. It’s disappointing, overlong, and a little pretentious but it isn’t bad exactly. Which is annoying. A bad movie would be much easier to condemn. There are wonderful moments in Foxcatcher and one truly great performance but at the end of the day, it’s a pretty mediocre movie. But, because it features all those elements that the Academy jerks itself off over, it will be nominated for a ton of awards and wind up on a lot of critic’s best ten lists. And that’s bullshit. Let me ask you a question: if this movie had come out in March, would anybody give two shits about it now?
A docudrama focused on the bizarre relationship that developed between billionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell) and two gold medal winning Olympic wrestlers (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), Foxcatcher looks and acts like an important, complex film but it has all the insight of a Lifetime original movie. In fact, this particular story could have easily wound up on that network if some other producer had gotten the rights to it. The gist of the true story is this: John Du Pont, an eccentric, repressed heir to a fortune decided to use his money and vast farm acreage to finance a team of Olympic wrestlers in the 1980’s. He wanted to be their leader, their mentor, and their father. His two main acquisitions were Mark and Dave Schultz (Tatum and Ruffalo). Mark, the younger brother, embraced the man’s offer first and Dave followed later. Mark and John developed a strange co-dependency based upon their mutual feelings of being overshadowed by someone else in their family. In John’s case, it was his mother. Mark, of course, felt overshadowed by his brother who was by all accounts a better wrestler and a well adjusted family man. Once Dave joined the ‘Du Pont cult’, a rift developed between the rich man and the younger brother. Mark eventually left the farm and Dave stayed on. Then one day in 1996, Du Pont drove up to Dave’s home on his estate and shot him dead.
Can’t you just see it on Lifetime? Rob Lowe could play Du Pont while a member of One Direction could play Mark. Some former sitcom star like Tom Cavanagh or Eric McCormack could play Dave and Tori Spelling could play Dave’s wife. It would be chock full of shitty dialogue and awkward time jumps. Then it would end with the murder, treating it as a shocking moment even though this story has been public record for years. It would be a cheap, ‘tabloid’ movie with no insight whatsoever into the crime or reasons behind it. It didn’t wind up on Lifetime though. Bennett Miller, the man who directed Capote and Moneyball, got ahold of it. He cast good actors and shot the film expertly. But after sitting through his version of the story, I think I would have preferred Lifetime. It would have been shorter, goofier, and less lofty. Also, it would have provided exactly the same amount of insight into the story as this film does.
The main problem I have is that Miller and his crew seemed to think that the words, ‘based on a true story’ acted as a get out of jail free card. They believed that as long as they portrayed the events (fairly) accurately, they would have a great film. Never mind the fact that they didn’t even attempt to delve into the real reasons Du Pont murdered Dave Shultz. They just needed to get the broad strokes right. And oh sure, throw in some half baked themes about America, the strive to win, childhood repression, petty jealousy, and brotherly love and hey what do you know, you’ve got an OSCAR MOVIE!!! YAY!!! EVERYBODY CLAP!!!
To say that the themes are half baked is actually a gross understatement. The movie starts talking about ‘America’ right away with both Tatum and Carell giving speeches about what a great country we live in while also condemning it because they haven’t achieved their own life goals. They both say they want to make ‘America’ great again but really they just want to boost themselves up. SEE?! DON’T YOU GET IT? THEY ARE THE DARK SIDE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM! Gag me. Tatum’s rivalry with Ruffalo is also broadly drawn and basically amounts to two guys who refuse to communicate with each other because…drama…I guess? It’s one of those movies where you want to shake the characters and shout, “just tell so-and-so what your problem with him is and stop hitting yourself in the face!”
Yeah, about that. Tatum has many scenes where he beats himself up. Literally. He’s seen smacking himself in the face early on and later he bashes his head into a hotel mirror after losing a match. These scenes brought me back to high school theater class. There was nothing more cloying and obnoxious than a student doing a scene where he got to throw something, or hit himself or someone else out of nowhere to achieve a gasp from the audience. The teacher used to call us out on crap like that. And yet, that’s exactly what Tatum does here and he’ll probably be nominated for an Oscar for it.
I don’t mean to trash Tatum though. I really don’t. I am firmly in his corner. I think he’s a talented actor with many hidden depths and a great comic sensibility (see 21 Jump Street). But in Foxcatcher, both he and Carell seem too acutely aware that they’re in a prestige movie. They’re both good and fully invested in the material but they’re also both clearly ‘acting’. It’s like they have a neon sign over their heads repeating, ‘look at me, look at me, look at me’. Carell isn’t helped by a prosthetic nose that looks like a prosthetic nose. I imagine his agent telling him to take this role and saying, “It’s a double threat because it’s a dark part but you’ll also get to wear heavy make-up. The Academy loves that shit.”
It’s frustrating because Tatum and Carell are getting all the attention while it’s Ruffalo who gives the best performance. He’s so perfectly natural as Dave, so earnest. Watch his eyes too. He knows that Du Pont is a fucked up psycho but goes along with his plan anyway because it provides the stability a university could not. The film’s best scene occurs towards the end when Du Pont is the subject of a documentary. The filmmaker interviews Dave and asks him to describe Du Pont as a mentor. Watch Ruffalo squirm in his chair and struggle to come up with an answer that will please the interviewer and not compromise his morals. Then watch the scenes where he asks Tatum what’s going on and receives no solid answers. He listens to his brother’s one word replies and nods his head but his eyes show a deep unease. It’s a magnificent performance. And it’s amplified slightly by Sienna Miller in the thankless role of Dave’s wife. She has two scenes where she actually speaks and yet brings more realism to her role than either Carell or Tatum. In fact, her performance brings up another problem with the movie. Hardly anyone is given any screen time besides Carell, Tatum and Ruffalo. We never get to know the other wrestlers, Du Pont’s staff is there to be Du Pont’s staff, and the female characters are there to either cry over or rebuke their prospective men.
When Du Pont finally shoots Dave at the end, it seems to happen only because it happened in real life. The movie doesn’t build up to the moment at all. A key fight between Dave and Du Pont is unheard and their relationship is never fully explored. Du Pont killed Dave in 1996, eight years after Mark had left the farm. But in the movie, it seems like it occurs a few months after Mark left. The murder is the reason the fucking flick was made and it tacks it on like an afterthought, depicting it only because it has too. The rest of the time, it’s busy adding in things like a homo-erotic subtext between Du Pont and Mark. That subtext feels like it’s there only because the screenwriters looked at the real life story and said, “hey, you think there was a gay thing going on between these two guys, should we add that in?”
Still, there are great moments. The wrestling scenes are fucking terrific and I appreciated the way the movie allowed Ruffalo and Tatum to discuss the actual techniques of the sport. Carell also shines in a few scenes, particularly the one where his mother (a wasted Vanessa Redgrave) comes to visit his gym. The movie looks great too. Miller films the landscapes of the farm in all of their bleak and naturalistic detail. And as I said, neither Carell nor Tatum are bad, they’re just too ‘act-y’. But in a year where we’ve gotten some stunningly great films with wells of hidden depths like Blue Ruin, The Guest, The Babadook, Birdman, Nightcrawler, Gone Girl, and Calvary, Foxcatcher doesn’t even come close. And it will probably get more awards and accolades than any of the films I listed before it. That’s why Oscar season pisses me off so much.