Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Foxcatcher, Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights

"Foxcatcher" is two and a quarter hours of beautifully mounted artistic images in search of a story.

Steve Carell, in a riveting if ultimately half-empty performance, plays the outrĂ© scion John E. DuPont, who craves - but will never earn - the approbation of his tightly clenched, wheelchair-bound mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). John's interests include bird-watching, stamp collecting and freestyle wrestling, the last of which his mother deems "a low sport. And I don't like to see you being low." 

John establishes an Olympic training facility on his family's vast Pennsylvania estate and invites '84 gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to prepare there for the world championships and Seoul, offering a large cash stipend to a hulking, almost aphasic man for whom dinner means Tabasco sauce over ramen. Mark has always trained with his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who also won gold in L.A., and it costs John even more to lure the reluctant Dave, a happily married family man, to his compound and the Foxcatcher team. 

John's behavior registers as bizarre from the beginning. He tells Mark, "Enough of this 'Sir' and 'Mr. DuPont' business. My friends call me Eagle, or Golden Eagle." He snaps the team to attention at a morning training session by firing a loaded pistol into the air. He snorts cocaine prodigiously and gets Mark hooked too. All of this holds our gaze in such a way that we're never outright bored. But Carell's and Tatum's tortured inexpressiveness (and Tatum's work is every bit the equal of Carell's; those who underrate his acting do so at their peril) can't mask the shallowness of the characters.

Director Bennett Miller and writer Dan Futterman might have found an emotional hook to hang on by investigating whether John's and Mark's relationship entailed a physical or affectional component. But they no more explore the homoeroticism of men's wrestling than explain its esoteric rules and scoring. Like the dusty equestrian ribbons Jean gives pride of place in the family's wall-sized trophy case, "Foxcatcher" can only be appreciated at a remove; like the bought-and-paid-for medal John "earns" at an over-50 wrestling meet, the story's conclusion has the feeling of preordination. The movie has too much ice in its veins for blood to boil.

Gina Prince-Bythewood's "Beyond the Lights" starts at a three-star level through 40 minutes and loses half a star after each additional 40 minutes. It takes forever to end and fails to deliver on its early promise as a smart update on "The Bodyguard." 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, stiff and corseted as "Belle" earlier this year, lets loose as Noni, the daughter of a hand-to-mouth Brixton mother (Minnie Driver) and a black father who took off before she was born. After a flashback to her mum's sneaking her into a black hair salon the night before a talent contest, we next see Noni as the skin-baring, hypersexual featured vocalist in white rap star Kid Culprit's #1 hit videos. (They're also screwing around on the side.) On the night she wins her first Billboard Music Award, Noni drinks a bottle of champagne and climbs over the railing of her penthouse hotel room. Kaz Nicol, the cop assigned to guard her (Nate Parker), walks in just in time to spot and pull her to safety. 

I singled Parker out for praise in my review of "About Alex" from mid-August: "The diamond in the rough here is Nate Parker[, who] gives a master class in maturity and quiet power that makes those around him seem undergraduate at best." Well, maturity and quiet power are great, but have you seen homeboy's body?! BOIIIIING! How did they fit all those muscles into that police uniform? Seriously, though, dude is jacked. 

The first third of "Beyond the Lights" feels up-to-the-minute and fresh as a daisy. The music videos, which in a more amateurish movie would reek of fakery, play totally authentic and au courant. Noni's meetings with the record label and media availability (under mum's ambitious eye) also feel real and raise interesting issues of the representation of women in contemporary popular music. There's also plenty of drama and cheese-corn along the way, including a public breakup with Kid Culprit during a BET Awards performance gone wrong and a viral YouTube video of an incognito Noni singing "Blackbird" at a Mexican karaoke bar on a stolen weekend with Kaz.

But the plot - including Kaz's embrace and ultimate rejection of the political career planned for him by his father (Danny Glover) - plays out surprisingly predictably, and at undue length. While Parker and Mbatha-Raw are both super sexy individually, they don't have great chemistry, and there aren't any memorable lovemaking scenes. "Beyond the Lights" started out so well, I never wanted it to end. Then I got my wish.

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