Film Review #2: Foxcatcher (★★½)

foxcatcher_ver3AFI Film Festival: To quote a much different movie, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.”

That’s the only way to explain the fact that people are falling over themselves in love with Bennett Miller‘s new film, Foxcatcher, while I’m sitting in the corner wondering what, exactly, I was supposed to like about it.

The film tells the true story of Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his relationship with billionaire John Du Pont (Steve Carell), a man who is used to buying what he wants, from wrestling trophies to people to 50 caliber machine guns.

The film opens on Mark’s meager existence, one in which he relies on paltry speaking fees to get by while he spends most of his time training for the next big competition with his brother, fellow Olympic gold medalist Dave (Mark Ruffalo). When Du Pont drops into Mark’s life and promises to make his dreams come true, the young wrestler jumps at the opportunity, asking his brother to come with him to Foxcatcher Farms in Pennsylvania to train for the World Championships and the 1988 Seoul Olympics with the private Team Foxcatcher. Dave declines the offer and Mark sets out alone, presumably for the first time in his life, to chase greatness for himself and for his country.

The slow start never gathers speed. This is a slow film from beginning to end. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that, unlike Miller’s previous films Capote and Moneyball, Foxcatcher feels much longer than its 2 hours and 14 minutes, taking its time in all the wrong places, making it tedious and sometimes even (dare I say it?) boring.

The relationship between Mark and Du Pont gradually changes from financier and beneficiary to friendship as the two begin to rely on each other for more than just money and  the chance for glory. It’s never exactly clear to me what their true relationship is, but it is certainly unhealthy and based largely on the fact that both men are alone in the world and always have been. Carell and Tatum perform well opposite each other, showing a complicated, fragile alliance that becomes confused and confusing. When the friendship crumbles in an instant, Du Pont sets out to bring Dave to the training facility to manage Mark and the rest of Team Foxcatcher. But Dave’s confidence is a foil to both Mark and Du Pont and the relationship between the three is tense and precarious.

Steve Carell gives a transformative performance as the wealthy and odd-looking John Du Pont. It’s clear that he understands this man and what drives him. It’s a much different role than we are used to seeing from the normally funny Carell, and he is up to the task of capturing the loneliness and desperation of the heir to the Du Pont family fortune. While he is great opposite co-lead Tatum, it is during the scenes with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) that Carell truly shines, giving us the only real glimpses of Du Pont’s motives behind his odd and often uncomfortable actions.

Tatum_foxcatcherChanning Tatum does a decent job, though he is getting more praise than I think he really deserves. One thing I’ve never liked about him is his habit of mumbling his way through one film after another, and Foxcatcher is no exception. It works for the character, but is simply part of who Tatum is as an actor. The only difference here is that the real acting happens in between his sparse bits of dialogue, and it is in those quiet moments that Mark becomes a fully rounded character. Tatum tells us so much more about Mark through what he doesn’t say, but, for me, he falls short of being really great. I never found a reason to truly care about Mark Schultz or his wrestling career.

Mark Ruffalo, however, is fantastic as the confident former champion Dave Schultz. Where Mark is focused only on the next competition, Dave is focused on the future and what is best for him, his brother, and his family, including wife Nancy (Sienna Miller) and their two young children. Ruffalo’s portrayal is very good as he balances his love and compassion for Mark with the tension growing with an unraveling Du Pont. He gives us a character that knows how to navigate sticky situations, that is much more balanced than either of the men at the story’s center; a story in which Dave should have been featured much more prominently.

The final ten minutes or so of Foxcatcher are good, but, while based on actual events, it feels like the big moment comes out of nowhere. If you don’t know the true story and plan to see the film, do yourself a favor and don’t look up what really happened. You don’t want to spoil it for yourself. The problem I had with the ending, though, was that it felt like THAT was the real point of the entire story, and yet there had been no build up to it. It took two hours to get to the point, but you never get a sense of where the film is going or why you should invest yourself in getting there.

Bennett Miller is a talented director, as he has proven with his previous Academy Award-nominated films. But this one just didn’t satisfy. To call it disappointing would be an understatement. I’ve come to expect so much more from Miller. When I think that we waited an extra year for this film, it’s even more frustrating that it wasn’t nearly as great as it could have been. Not nearly as great as Miller has shown us before.

Be sure to read the far more complimentary reviews from Clayton and Jack.

And if you haven’t already watched it a dozen times by now, here’s the trailer: