A fascinating true story gets underwhelming treatment in ‘Foxcatcher’

Steve Carell (left) and Channing Tatum talk wrestling in the disappointing Foxcatcher.

Two and a half stars

Foxcatcher Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo. Directed by Bennett Miller. Rated R. Opens Friday.

People love to say that a real-life story is “stranger than fiction,” but an incredible yarn doesn’t necessarily make for a terrific movie. Much of the time, the events depicted simply don’t coalesce into a thematically coherent whole, the way first-rate fiction does. One can also go too far in the other direction, though, huffing and puffing to freight a fairly banal case history with Meaning. That’s what Bennett Miller (Capote) does in Foxcatcher, which struggles to turn the sorry saga of John E. du Pont into a requiem for America.

Because Miller plays a bit fast and loose with the timeline of what actually happened, it’s hard to pin down dates, or even years. Sometime in the mid-1980s, however, a champion wrestler named Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) was contacted by eccentric millionaire du Pont (Steve Carell), who’d become obsessed with the sport—particularly as it related, in his mind, to the country’s self-image—and wanted to help train a team that could win the gold at the 1988 Olympic games. Schultz took up residence on du Pont’s estate, training under his benefactor’s rather creepy supervision, and was eventually persuaded to coax his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a wrestling champ, to join him there. Alas, du Pont became more and more unstable as the years went on—quite a few more years than are depicted here—and tragedy befell the trio, leaving one man dead and another serving a prison sentence for the rest of his life.

Had an extremely rich (though not exactly famous) man not been at the center of this nightmare, it’s unlikely that anyone would remember it, especially since the cause-and-effect relationship screenwriters Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye concoct between the Olympics and the murder is wholly invented. Foxcatcher (titled after du Pont’s name for the wrestling team, taken from his family’s horse-racing interests), on the other hand, wants to make it stand for … well, who knows what? How American ambition inevitably leads to a violent abuse of power? Carell has gotten a lot of attention for his performance, but that’s primarily a combination of the prosthetic nose he wears (see also: Nicole Kidman’s Oscar win for The Hours) and the fact that he’s a comedian playing an entirely dramatic role. He never makes du Pont’s actions comprehensible, and Foxcatcher, well-made though it is, never quite makes them meaningful.

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