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Review: 'Foxcatcher' is a comedy about the John Du Pont murder shot like a drama

Like the film, it's hard to tell if Steve Carell's turn as the wealthy murderer is funny or terrifying.

‘Foxcatcher’
Director:
Bennett Miller
Stars: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

It’s not clear how he does it, but director Bennett Miller, in “Capote,” “Moneyball” and now “Foxcatcher,” has demonstrated a knack for sucking all the air out of a room. His movies move glacially, but not in the manner of Andrei Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr. The actors take their time, and rarely step on each other’s lines; even when the characters are dynamic, they seem doped up and leave giant, awkward pauses in between exchanges. You can hear all the silences, even when, as in “Moneyball,” they’re rattling off Aaron Sorkin banter.

This unusual quality mostly lends itself well to “Foxcatcher,” whose tone should be as hard to pin down as it is. It’s the tale of John Du Pont (Steve Carell), the mentally unwell scion of one of the nation’s wealthiest families, and how he whimsically murdered Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) after befriending his dopey brother Mark (Channing Tatum). Mark was also an Olympian, but a less successful one. Hard up for a gig, he’s whisked away to the sprawling Pennsylvania estate, where Du Pont wants him to lead his own team of wrestlers, just because he suddenly likes wrestling and he has the money and the untamed psychological problems to do whatever he wants.

The Du Ponts — not just John but his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who seems to haunt the grounds like a ghost — have all been driven mad by excessive, cradling wealth. But Miller wants you to know this is satire — like really, really know. His inability to do anything lightly means he keeps sticking his elbow deep within viewers’ ribs for lengthy jabs, usually by way of dwelling on patriotic symbols or simply having people scarily chant “U.S.A.!”, just in case one missed this was a takedown of the American dream.

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And yet there’s that tone. "Foxcatcher" is a comedy shot like a drama; it plays like a mega-ponderous, aggressively prestigious chunk of awards bait — like, say, Miller's "Capote" — spliced with an awkward yukfest. It's not a smooth blend, nor should it be. Most of it hoversunsurely between deadpan absurdism and menace, sometimes wobbling one way or the other. Occasionally it scores perhaps too easy laughs; other times it hits on uneasy scares. The movie moves at the non-pace of Du Pont and Mark — two men with little on the minds and no need to move fast when they’re not wrassling on the mat. It’s not clear if Carell is being funny or not, and that’s what’s mesmerizing about it.

Despite the softening accolades that will come his way, Carell is essentially doing sketch comedy — the kind of anti-comedy that milks most of its laughs out of drawing things out, testing viewer’s patience for an easy answer. It’s clear he’s crazy, but is he mostly harmless or mostly harmful? The different between the two is shown in the most minute of facial expressions, and Carell delights in spending the film staring like a deer in headlights, breathing through his mouth, poking his honking fake proboscis up in the air and holding things not a few beats but several, unnerving beats too long. He’s the social dork as monster.

That tension is really all “Foxcatcher” has, and it’s enough. It’s great fun when the impossibly languorous mood is spoiled by the arrival of Ruffalo’s Dave — a real human being and relaxed social beast who speaks at a normal pace and seems recognizably human. The climactic act itself is appropriately sudden and inexplicable, but it has no idea how to wrap up, except to retreat back to its leaden sense of shallow satire. But for most of its run, when it’s unclear just what the hell “Foxcatcher” is, it’s thrilling.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge
 
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