Sunday, 11 January 2015

Foxcatcher and Birdman

A few years ago a friend went to see the film The Social Network. It had been my favourite film of that year but she admitted that she was 'livid' with herself for not enjoying it. I never really understood her reasoning until now: I wanted to love Foxcatcher and was annoyed as hell that I didn't fall in love with it.

So why not?

It is an unsettling and compelling film, where Steve Carrell gives a career defining performance as billionaire John Du Pont who wishes to be a champion but is a mere collector of champions instead - gathering other peoples' trophies and displaying them as if they were his own. Du Pont hires Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to join his Foxcatcher team and live in his compound. From the very beginning his creepy offer would send anyone running for the hills, but Schultz, a lonely man who appears to live only to grapple with other men, it seems like the offer of a lifetime.

At first everything is hunky dory in the Pennsylvanian fort: Mark keen to impress, Du Pont desperate to be needed. But slowly their friendship begins to unravel, as does Mark whereupon Du Pont drafts in Mark's brother Dave - another Olympic gold medalist - to join the gang.

In this hollow tale, Mark Ruffalo gives an extraordinary performance as Dave - a flash of colour on an otherwise grey palette. The scene where he struggles to explain on camera that Du Pont is his 'mentor' is one of the best.  Dave engages us, we care about him and his cute family and relish the fact he stands up to Du Pont, protecting his younger sibling.

The problem with this wrestling film is that in spite of all that rolling around in bare skin, we never really get under it. Du Pont - a man child whose mother clearly preferred her horses - is completely flat, bar his spectacular nose. What motivates the tragedy at the end of the film? His unquenched thirst for his wrestlers? If the man had only come out, would tragedy have been averted? I left the cinema scratching my head. Foxcatcher isn't a bad film, it just is incredibly s-l-o-w. That combined with the sparse script that heavily relies on subtext (usually no bad thing - here just makes the film feel 'empty') and a lead that we don't really care about adds up to a film that is watchable but not memorable.

Similarly Birdman walks a similar path. It is a film where art imitates life and Micheal Keaton - best known for his role in the 80s Burton Batman flicks, is an ex-movie star Birdman who is trying to resuscitate his career by staging a Broadway play. For me, any scene not involving his mixed up, sexed up daughter/assistant played by a brilliant Emma Stone was simply not worth watching. The ending was predictable; the whimsy not whimsical enough, the special powers revealed to be real (I think?) which instead of adding to the story merely detracted from it.

Keaton is magical - playing essentially a more wired version of himself - but the one-take structure is wearing and whilst the script is sharp and occasionally funny, I left the theatre feeling ambivalent about the whole thing. Almost as if everyone who wants to appear clever will clap and praise a film who points a finger at the vacuousness of Hollywood, it's opening weekends, social media and how anyone can now be a celebrity. But we know all this - we don't need Keaton in his pants running through Times Square to tell us that...

Call me sentimental, but I want someone to champion, to love, to make me laugh and weep and run the gauntlet of all possible emotions through a 2 hour window. In short, I want HEART. In these two films I failed to find it. But that's fine - because tonight, fingers crossed, at the Globes, Boyhood should take the prize as it has it in spades...

No comments: