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

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).