“So slow,” moaned the woman three aisles up as Foxcatcher’s closing credits rolled. Was she familiar with Bennett Miller’s work? He directs as if he were an instructor reading the first drafts of essays for freshman comp. Based on the batshit events leading up to “world’s richest man” John E. du Pont’s murder of Dave Schulz in 1996 after Schulz’s Olympic wrestling team failed to bring home the gold, Foxcatcher should’ve been called Elephant Foot. E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman changed many facts, which I won’t go over here; the result, though, is a ponderous prestige film with Freud-mommy overtones and, like Wild, every nuance nailed down on a board.
Winning a gold medal in 1984 didn’t change Mark Schulz’s (Channing Tatum) career options. When Foxcatcher opens, he’s reduced to giving inspirational speeches for twenty dollar paydays at Wisconsin high schools, and only because his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), the original invitee, let him go in his place as a favor (it’s the first and last time Miller lets the audience draw its own conclusions about what we’re watching). He eats Ramen noodles—that all-purpose signifier of poverty in movies—in his shitty apartment. The only hints of his physical grace come in solo wrestling practices when he pivots, darts, and does cartwheels; if you cast Channing Tatum in a movie he has to dance without a shirt, you know.
Then he gets a call from a du Pont apparatchik—will he accept a first-class flight to the Pennsylvania estate? In a library larded with Revolutionary kitsch and oil paintings commemorating the du Pont family’s long history of building munitions and chemicals that have killed thousands of people, Mark looks shriveled despite his size. Even weirder is the patrician himself. As played by Steve Carell, he’s as remote as the portrait of George Washington on the wall, not quite boasting about his dilettantish habits (if he boasted he wouldn’t be an aristocrat) such as bird watching and stamp collecting. He speaks in inspirational Reagan-era clichés about wanting to give the youth of America “something to believe in” and “to feel proud of themselves again.” “I’m an ornithologist. More than that, I’m a patriot,” he intones, in the only laugh line the scriptwriters offer him (it’s not even clear if I was supposed to laugh). His offer: hire Mark to train a new wrestling team for the purpose of winning more gold in Seoul.
At first du Pont and Mark follow the usual pattern of homoerotic relations in American movies: the less wily lummox becomes the prat boy for the older and wealthier partner. In exchange for blow and good scotch, Mark delivers paeans to du Pont’s patriotism at fundraising events, complete with references to philately and philanthropy (Mark learns to pronounce them in a helicopter after a good toot). du Point, clad in increasingly ridiculous electric blue Team Foxcatcher head coach clothes, is grateful. He never had a friend; his only one growing up, he confides to Mark, was the chauffeur’s boy, paid to be his friend by his mother. Their hugs get longer. But du Pont remains unsatisfied. Still smarting over brother Dave Schulz’s refusal to join the team as assistant coach, he makes Dave an offer too handsome to refuse. His wife and kids join Mark in the guest chalet. Mark, rather proud of having claimed a berth of his own, resents Dave’s presence and, notably, how his meal ticket now looks at Dave as the savior.
I lost interest in Foxcatcher after the first seven or eight minutes when Miller, setting the scene by having an actor mention that it’s been three years since the Los Angeles Olympics, includes an extreme close-up of a pen dating a check “March 1987,” and, in case the audience still can’t add or read, shows a photo of Ronald Reagan in the background. This is typical of Miller’s approach. He underestimates the audience’s intelligence, then condescends to them by stretching every epiphany and canned revelation past the point of dramatic interest; he’s like a boss keeping the staff after five o’clock on Christmas Eve to make a point about character- and team building. As J. Bryan Lowder wrote recently, “I would apologize to my theater companions for audibly groaning when the camera drifted, dirge-like, over the word “KIDS” scrawled in ink on David’s hand and past a display of his wedding photo and cake topper as straight wholesomeness—I mean he—bled out on the snow…” With its montages of flags, heartland, flying geese, and snapshots of du Pont wealth, set to grand orchestration, Miller buys John’s twaddle; there’s no explanation for these things unless he’s as much a collector of American calendar art as du Point himself. Foxcatcher repeats the pattern of Miller’s 2005 Capote: each man kills the thing he loves, here given a generous dollop of mommy politics. Wheelchair bound and dressed in Ingrid Bergman’s 1944 finest, Vanessa Redgrave steals the picture in two scenes as the sort of parent who strong-arms her son into giving his beloved toy train set to a children’s museum and wrinkles her nose at the “sport of wrestling.” Too low, she says. Nothing like equestrian sports. It’s painful to watch Carell trying to out-patrician Redgrave (when she dies, he frees the horses from the stable—that’s the kind of movie this is).
In the long tradition of comic actors (a) Going Serious (b) wearing prosthetics, Carell does it proud. Often his sketches have parodied out-of-it dads and administrators: like Chevy Chase, the flatter his delivery the more obvious the parody. I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be playing. He’s not acting so much as imitating an actor wearing a fake nose. Tatum reprises his Magic Mike sincere hunk routine; he’s not bad, but like Mark Schulz himself he’s too old to play to audience expectations even when pandering to them. Ruffalo sports a beard, which means he plays warm and empathetic.
Reading this review, I’m sorry it took this long to consider a movie that like Babel, Finding Neverland, and The Reader no one will remember in three months. Foxcatcher is for people nostalgic for the eighties prestige picture, except from the looks of my audience it aint’ foolin’ anyone. Carell will get his Oscar nod. Wikipedia will get a few million more hits on its du Pont pages. The flat of the Unwatched Prestige Picture flaps, unblemished.