It was Erma Bombeck, newspaper humorist and author, who talked about there being a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humour and hurt. If ever there is anyone who doesn’t quite get what she was on about, all they need do is watch Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher.

Putting Carrell, largely known as a funny man, in a fake nose and getting him to play John Du Pont seems to be prompting contrasting reactions from audience members. People are mixed as to how to take his performance.

In this film, as by all accounts in real life Du Pont was an idiosyncratic individual with grand ideas above his capabilities and reputation. Some among those I viewed the movie with found his quirks funny. There was a fair amount of audible laughter for a fair proportion of the showing. There were many of us though who did not laugh and I believe I know what set us apart. Those people who were coming new to all of the events on screen found Carrell’s Du Pont amusing but those who knew how this story ended found the performance utterly disturbing. Bombeck’s thin line divided us.

As the heir to the family’s gunpowder and Lycra fortune, John Du Pont was a hugely wealthy man and prior the Seoul 88 Olympics he ventured to become benefactor and pseudo coach to the American wrestling team. He first recruited previous gold medal winner Mark Schultz and then his similarly decorated brother. It turns out though that John did not play well with others.

The film is a powerful portrait of mental illness and what can happen when this goes ignored and untreated. Steve Carrell’s performance is brilliant and he is almost literally unrecognisable from his other roles (he went straight from this to playing Brick Tamland again in Anchorman 2). He has shown himself to be versatile before but this is something else. It may well end up as the finest performance of his career but who knows where this could lead. There may yet be better to come.

The Schultz brothers are played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo is always good but Tatum’s showing, like Carrell’s, is a bit of a revelation. He is superb, changing his whole physicality to play the impressionable young athlete Mark.

The real Mark Schultz has recently made some very strong objections to the film. This is a turn around as he was originally equally vocal in his support of it, he even cameos as a fight official. It seems that a few of the US critics have said the movie has a homoerotic subtext and this has made him unhappy. I saw Foxcatcher back in November, when Schultz was still a big fan, and I didn’t read this into it at all. Personally I think it is a bit of a lazy analysis. Schultz is now saying that the film totally misrepresents him and he is nothing like that in real life. Funny because I see his reaction to the film’s press as a little hotheaded which for me is totally in line with how Tatum plays him.

More than anything, Foxcatcher is a character study and is a gripping film. I highly recommend it but you won’t laugh, unless of course you do.

The Ripley Factor:

There are only two women in the film. Vanessa Redgrave plays Du Pont’s mum and she is not really a positive vision of femininity and motherhood. It is clearly suggested that she is responsible for her son’s needy and approval hungry character.

Sienna Miller also appears as Dave Schultz’s wife and is a total contrast to Jean Du Pont. She is played as a loving family centred woman and it is a good and believable performance.

Interestingly neither women feature very much. It is tempting to think a lot of what they shot has been cut but actually if they weren’t both high profile actors I’m not sure you’d think this is the case. The film is really about the three men.

Is this one for the kids?

There is some swearing, drug use and (non sexual locker room) nudity but nothing to worry anyone 15 or over which is exactly what the certification suggests.

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