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FOXCATCHER

A coldly ominous atmosphere pervades “Foxcatcher,” Bennett Miller’s docu-drama about the circumstances behind the 1996 murder of Olympic freestyle wrestling star Dave Schultz by multi-millionaire John Eleuthere du Pont. The film is chillingly dark from the very start, but Miller screws up the tension progressively over the course of two hours until by the close the threat of imminent disaster becomes almost palpable. And, of course, things suddenly do explode in violence.

The strange tale begins with Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), Dave’s younger brother who had also won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics as well as a World Championship afterward, barely eking out an existence while preparing for further competitions. (We see him earning twenty bucks for giving an uplifting talk before an assembly of bored elementary-school kids.) He has sparring sessions with Dave, who’s married and raising a family while working as a school coach, but it’s a lonely life with few prospects. Then, out of the blue, he gets a call from a du Pont representative inviting him to come to the family’s Pennsylvania estate and meet with John (Steve Carell).

The millionaire presents himself to Mark as a zealous patriot who’s anxious to see the U.S. do well in future international wrestling contests. To that end he’s built a state-of-the-art training facility on his property, and invites Mark to live in a guest house there and become the first of a group that will eventually include an initially reluctant Dave and come to be known as Team Foxcatcher, after the estate’s name. John will act as not just a patron but a coach to the men, inspiring them (at least in his own mind, and his own propaganda) to victories that will bring glory not just to them—and him—but to the country as well.

Things obviously do not work out as planned. The bizarreness of du Pont becomes increasingly unsettling, and especially after the affable Dave arrives, usurping the central position among the wrestlers, Mark, never the most ingratiating fellow, grows more and more sullen and incommunicative., and his performance on the mat deteriorates. The actors capture brilliantly the unease in the relationships among the three men. Ruffalo is all smiling bonhomie, but one senses a wary perceptiveness beneath the good-natured concern, and Tatum, who juts out his chin to show Mark’s bulldog pugnacity, manages also to convey the vulnerability—and resentment over his brother’s easygoing charm—within.

And then there’s Carell. Much will be made about how the role of du Pont represents a stretch for him, and in many ways it does. Pudgier, and with a large prosthetic nose that almost forces him to continuously look upward merely to support it, as well as waxy skin, he certainly looks different, and his slow, softly sinister mode of speech is unlike Carell’s usual brash delivery, too. But in du Pont one senses the same sort of awkwardness and veiled insecurity that characterized Michael Scott too, a similar fear of being discovered as false and inadequate—a tone that Carell cannily express in both inflection and gesture. It’s a very controlled performance, and one that operates within an extremely limited range—but the fact that Carell is able to maintain its consistency over the course of the picture, even in the final act, is remarkable.

Of course much of the actors’ success depends on Miller’s direction, which shows the same skill in drawing out precisely what’s required from them that infused “Capote” and “Moneyball.” And Miller works just as effectively with his production team—cinematographer Greig Fraser, editors Stuart Levy, Conor O’Neill and Jay Cassidy, production designer Jess Gonchor , art director Brad Ricker, set decorator Kathy Lucas as costumer Kasia Walicka-Maimone—to fashion, and more importantly to sustain, the mood of understated menace that permeates every frame, and that Ron Simonsen’s subtle score accentuates.

It will probably be noted that screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman (the latter Miller’s main muse, it seems) do fudge details in crafting the film’s arc. The chronology isn’t ideally clear—in reality Mark and Dave Schultz didn’t reside at the estate at the same time (Mark lived there between 1986 and 1988, and Dave between 1989 and 1996). Moreover, the effort to dramatize the idea that at least some of du Pont’s psychological problems derive from mommy issues led them to present Jean du Pont (played with withering snobbery by Vanessa Redgrave) as a highly class-conscious figure who watches her son’s obsession with such a low-brow sport as wrestling—and his construction of an Olympic-quality training facility at the estate—with stern disapproval before dying at a dramatically convenient moment. (She was interested in horse breeding, a far more proper avocation.) In reality, du Pont built his facility only after her death in 1988, whe4n he also changed the estate’s name to Foxcatcher. Additional deviations from the record can also be found.

But of course Miller’s film isn’t a documentary; it’s a drama that, like his previous films, uses a real event to illuminate deeper, more universal issues—the meaning of patriotism, the power of inherited wealth, the drive for athletic prowess and victory. And if it fiddles with the facts in pursuit of the larger truths that they can illustrate, one can easily accept such an exercise of dramatic license. After all, one not only accepts but expects it in Shakespeare’s so-called history plays, and “Foxcatcher” in many respects is a tragedy for the modern age, a quietly riveting study of obsession that leads to catastrophe.

HORRIBLE BOSSES 2

Sequelitis has so infected Hollywood that even a mediocre comedy like 2011’s “Horrible Bosses” has spawned a follow-up that, true to form, is even worse than its predecessor. The first film was at least mildly amusing in spots. This one—more frantic and stupid, and considerably more vulgar—offers a few throwaway lines that might cause you to crack a smile, an occasional good reaction shot from Jason Bateman, and an energetic turn from Chris Pine, but otherwise it’s more tedious than funny. The title adjective might be a little too harsh as a description, but not by much.

The set-up has the three wacky pals from the first movie—goofy Dale (Charlie Day) and lascivious Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), whose antics are an endless source of exasperation to more sensible Nick (Bateman)—inventing a device called the Shower Buddy, which they plan to manufacture and market and—they hope—make a fortune from. The opening portrays them trying to promote the thing on a live Los Angeles TV morning show, a bit that provides a foretaste of the tone to follow by being crude in terms of both sexual innuendo and jocular racism while allowing for lots of frenzied comic bickering between the guys.

Amazingly, the disastrous spot—perhaps designed as a homage to the old Vitameatavegamin routine from “I Love Lucy”—catches the eye of a couple of major retail investment types, sleazy Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz) and his playboy son Rex (Pine), who contract to buy 100,000 units if the guys will take out a start-up loan to produce them. Of course once the things are ready, the Hansons renege on the deal, intending to let the new business go bankrupt and buy the inventory at pennies on the dollar while the naïve trio go bust.

That induces our supposed heroes to hatch a plot to kidnap Rex and force Bert to pay a big ransom for his return. That requires them once again to seek advice from their old criminal pal Dean “Motherfucker”” Jones (Jamie Foxx), as well as from Nick’s nasty one-time boss Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey), who’s now in prison. And pulling it off involves breaking into the office of Dale’s former boss, nymphomaniac dentist Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston), to steal the gas that they’ll use to put Rex under. All the hands from the first movie—except, of course, for Colin Farrell’s Bobby, who was killed in it—are thus on hand again. (Farrell should thank his lucky stars.) Of course things to not go as planned. Rex turns the tables on the boobs, insisting that they go through with their scheme but hand over most of the loot to him. The script by director Sean Anders and John Morris thus becomes not just another rip-off of “Nine to Five” (as the first movie was), but of “Ruthless People,” too—or its ultimate inspiration, “The Ransom of Red Chief”—although Bert does get the cops involved, in the person of a dour lieutenant (Jonathan Banks, looking more bulldog than ever).

The borrowing wouldn’t be fatal if the outcome justified it, but like its predecessor “Horrible Bosses 2” doesn’t live up to its models. The routines played out by Bateman, Sudeikis and Day get tiresome very quickly, with Day’s constant screaming, in particular, grating rather than funny. (Gene Wilder did this sort of nervous-Nellie stuff much better. So did Don Knotts, in fact.) The bits offered by Spacey, Foxx and Aniston come off like cadenzas fit awkwardly into the plot to shoehorn them all back into the mix. Pine adds some spark to things by going for broke, but Waltz seems totally at sea, playing his part relatively straight. Even in the blooper reel that forms part of the final credits, he doesn’t seem amused by a car door that refuses to open for him; the others laugh uproariously over their own silliness, obviously having a lot more fun than anybody in the audience will.

On the technical side, the picture is barely adequate, looking for all the world like B-level studio fodder. But if you’re going to cut corners on a script, you’re probably not going to worry too much about such niceties as cinematography (Julio Macat) or production design (Clayton Hartley). They shouldn’t be blamed overmuch, though; it would be hard for anyone to be inspired to his best efforts by material like this, especially since Anders seems content to allow his stars—and cameo players—improvise at will, and at inordinate length.

Come to think of it, perhaps “horrible” isn’t too far off the mark, after all.