Review: ‘Foxcatcher’ Is Great At Looking Like An Awards Movie

11.21.14 2 years ago 58 Comments
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TIFF

Foxcatcher expands to more theaters this weekend. This is my original review from TIFF.

Like Bennett Miller’s last movie, Moneyball, Foxcatcher is long on production values, but short on insight. His film about weirdo Jon DuPont and the wrestling Schultz brothers is entertaining enough and looks great, it just doesn’t tell you a whole lot… well, a whole lot about Jon DuPont or the Schultz brothers. Miller seems to make the awards movie equivalent of pre-fab tract homes – spacious, and modern, but the one he builds in Detroit is going to be virtually identical the one he builds in San Diego. His movie about the wrestler is going to feel a lot like his movie about the baseball manager, and so forth. And like tract homes, they’re for the kind of people who just want something comfy, even if it’s kind of bland.

You probably already know the broad strokes of the story about Mark and Dave Schultz, and crazy John DuPont, who ended up murdering Dave. If not, great, because broad strokes are all you’re going to get anyway. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play the brother-champions, after they’ve both won gold at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Set in the lead up to the 1988 games, the first scene in Foxcatcher finds Channing Tatum getting paid $20 to speak to an assembly full of bored middle schoolers about the value of, uh… determination (Tatum reads his speech off notebook paper). “Wait, aren’t you Dave?” The secretary asks him while she’s signing his check. He sullenly, reluctantly corrects her, before driving back to his gritty, Pacific Northwest rat hole to shovel ramen noodles into his mouth while staring at the stains on his wall. Because that’s what angry meatheads do, you see, they use utensils improperly and stare at walls, just trying to get pissed off enough to do sports.

It’s a lot of fun watching Channing Tatum play an angsty meathead, and it sets up the dynamic between the Schultz brothers – angsty, lonerish, inarticulate Mark, overshadowed by his gregarious family man older brother, Dave. But these are basically stock characters, and the movie bends over backwards trying to set up the obvious, Shakespearian conflict while yadda yaddaing all of the nuance and particularities.

Why is Mark Schultz angsty, and why is he so focused on the 1988 Olympics? Is it because he didn’t have a father, as the movie posits (a story element that seems to have been imported from other stories without concern of how it might feature into the cause-and-effect matrix of this particular story)? Or could it be, perhaps, that because the 1984 Olympics were boycotted by all the traditional-wrestling-powerhouse Eastern Bloc nations, the perception was that Schultz’s medals were less legitimate? It seems like that would be an important factor in Mark’s inferiority complex, but Foxcatcher never mentions it, being much more concerned with generic sibling rivalry, pop psychology and daddy issues.

John DuPont is equally stock, though elevated somewhat by Steve Carell’s performance. It’s hilarious when he asks Channing Tatum to stop calling him “Sir,” or “Mr. DuPont,” and to instead call him “Eagle,” or “Golden Eagle.” But other than a few great lines, Dupont is basically a sheltered, delusional rich kid with an overbearing mother, a combination of Norman Bates and Marie Antoinette. There’s friction between the seriously talented Carell’s attempt at a unique take and the torn-from-a-Dateline-segment character written by screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman. The only thing missing is the Stone Phillips narration. “John Dupont was a spoiled heir who thought he could buy anyone. Mark Schultz was an overgrown kid who never had a daddy…”

Still, as sloppy as Foxcatcher is with narrative detail, it is elegant and fairly meticulous when it comes to visual detail. In addition to the more obvious cosmetic touches, like Carell’s nose and C-Tates’ cauliflower ear, both Tatum and Ruffalo nail the peculiar gait of wrestlers, that sort of hunch-shouldered, splay-armed permanent semi-crouch. Miller also does a fantastic job making wrestling look exciting (it usually isn’t) while remaining true to actual wrestling moves. Normally, screenwriters just imagine jocks as themselves, where the key to every athletic competition is finding the most dramatic metaphor. But when Foxcatcher‘s brothers give each other wrestling advice, it’s actual wrestling advice, not the usual horseshit movie pump up speeches (like Win Win and its “I just pretend I’m f*ckin’ drowning” pep talk).

The strangest thing about Foxcatcher is the way it manages to simultaneous leave out crucial story details while incorporating insidery references that don’t add up to anything. The way it treats MMA is a good example. At one point, we see Mark Schultz and the rest of his wrestling team at Dupont’s Foxcatcher farms sitting down to watch a famous UFC match between Gary Goodridge and Paul Herrera. Leaving out the fact that this match actually took place in February 1996, a month after Dave Schultz’s death, the team watches the match, somewhat horrified that Herrera, who one of the team had trained with at Nebraska, was getting his head nearly caved in by downward elbows from Goodridge (this fight). Later, we see a seemingly broken Mark Schultz, after his wrestling career is over, about to enter the cage for an MMA match. The movie doesn’t show any of Schultz’s actual fight or who it was against, but people who know the history know that it was against that same elbow-smashing dude, Gary Goodridge. Who Schultz, as a late replacement on one day’s notice, went on to beat (you can watch the whole thing here if you have UFC fight pass). Narratively, this makes absolutely no sense. They invented a weird foreshadowing to Schultz’s Goodridge fight, that no one but huge MMA dorks will even recognize, and those people will probably be too busy wondering why they switched around the timeline to enjoy it. Not to mention that they left out the actual fight.

I don’t expect Foxcatcher to be a documentary, but if you’re going to take liberties, it’d be nice if they added something, or actually made sense. Similarly, there’s a gay subtext between Dupont and Mark Schultz that’s strongly implied, but then, without any sort of climactic event, Schultz all of a sudden starts acting like a rape victim. Is there a scene missing? So much of the movie feels like that, like Miller thought sideways references to things would add up to something without him having to choose a take on the material.

Foxcatcher is full of great visual detail, exciting scenes, and some hilarious lines from Steve Carell, but I sat there praying it wouldn’t go for the cheap, stock biopic moments only to see a guy headbutt a mirror a few seconds later. It feels like it could be about anything, like a series of screen tests and trailer moments without connective tissue. It feels simultaneously sensational and uninsightful.

GRADE: B-

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.

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