Du Pont Wrestling Drama Foxcatcher Engages but Doesn’t Pin

The du Pont family made its fortune selling gunpowder during the War of 1812, and soldiered on to invent everything ever worn by a cop: Kevlar, nylon, polyester, synthetic rubber. If you’ve cooked on Teflon pans, that money’s theirs, too. That means you’ve supported American patriotism, or at least heir John Eleuthère du Pont’s version of it, funded and fought on wrestling mats at 10 world championships and three Olympics. (Naturally, the du Pont labs also developed the Lycra spandex for his athlete’s singlets.)

John (played here by a ghostly Steve Carell) spent $600,000 of his $200 million fortune to build a wrestling gym at Foxcatcher, his family estate and the name of director Bennett Miller’s stone-faced jock drama. He was a lousy wrestler himself: over 50, scrawny, and with a permanent wedgie. What he was really trying to buy was respect from his mother (Vanessa Redgrave), from the Olympic committee, and from his locker room of grapplers who dutifully agreed to call him a role model and a coach in exchange for great facilities, free room and board, the occasional ride on du Pont’s private plane, and, of course, Foxcatcher-logo sweatshirts that come to look like the brand of a true believer.

Everyone has a price. Which makes Foxcatcher a natural follow-up to Miller’s Moneyball, another sports film about dollars, cents, and cynicism. The cheapest is Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), a 1984 gold medalist who, thanks to Olympic eligibility rules, is so broke he’s gotta train for 1988 Seoul on a diet of dry ramen. Schultz’s older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) — a smaller but smarter wrestler who can convincingly flip Mark like a pancake — costs more. When Mark warns du Pont, “You can’t buy Dave,” the millionaire grunts, “Huh?” A man without a price may as well be a black hole — a theory that du Pont has never confirmed firsthand.

As much as du Pont sneers at his mother’s show ponies (in a tantrum, he blurts, “Horses are stupid!”), he, too, sees his investment as simply buying good muscles, housing them in stables, and collecting trophies. And, one fears, dragging his wrestlers behind the barn to be shot when they’ve served their purpose — thanks to his family’s war fund, he owns not just an army of pistols, but a tank.

Carell is unrecognizable as the lonely tyrant. His eyes seem smaller and more sunken, his nose has doubled to an imperious beak, and his skin is marred with wrinkles and liver spots. He walks in small, mincing steps and speaks in a gray monotone — the voice of a man who’s never had to yell to get what he wants. To the world, du Pont looks like a mouse. To himself, he’s much greater. Telling Mark he no longer has to call him Mr. du Pont, he warmly suggests, “Eagle, or Golden Eagle.”

Meanwhile, Mark looks like a brute, but turns out to be as fragile as a little boy. Tatum furrows his brow, juts his jaw, and lumbers around like a playground bully with yardsticks in his pants — he can do a backflip on command, but boy, are his legs sore. He and du Pont look like an odd couple, but their codependence makes sense. They both need someone to believe in their greatness, and for a while they prop each other up. The price — no privacy, little free will, late nights pretending to let du Pont pin him during drunken practices — doesn’t seem like much to Mark until, suddenly, it dawns on him that it is. Sometimes Tatum punches his own head as if Mark was trying to turn on his brain. It’s an intelligent depiction of a very dumb man, who is no less tragic for being unable to articulate his hopes and hurts.

Foxcatcher feels like that, too, as though Miller has banged the facts around but can’t shake out what story he wants to tell. He’s mashed the timeline and rejiggered the events so much that the film is several strides away from the truth, which would be more pardonable if he’d done it to shape a theme. The pieces of something important are here — there’s ego and greed and desperation, the essential ingredients of the American tragedy — but none of it fits together. Instead, Foxcatcher is merely a very, very good character study with acting so fine that it’s frustrating it’s not in the service of a real, emotional wallop.

At least — like the Foxcatcher estate itself — it’s a handsome veneer. Miller must not have had the budget to reproduce the million-piece mosaic du Pont commissioned of himself triumphing in a fictitious pentathlon, but the movie has the look and swagger of a champion. (It did win Miller the Best Director award at Cannes.) But despite its strengths, Foxcatcher ultimately leans too much on those looks, hunting for resonance in endless close-ups of bronze foxes, stuffed foxes, porcelain foxes frozen in mid-flight, yet leaving its message loose enough that it’s easy to escape its hold.


NYFF: In Foxcatcher, Tatum, Carell, and Ruffalo Expose a Nation’s Macho Insecurities

Foxcatcher is a toxic stew of masculine ego, competition, ambition and sibling rivalry filtered through a distinctly American lens. With the red-white-and-blue constantly hovering around the corners of its action, Bennett Miller’s based-on-real-events drama concerns the tumultuous saga of wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), whose lonely, miserable life after winning a 1984 Olympic Gold Medal changes when he’s summoned to the remote, aridly opulent estate of John du Pont (Steve Carell). Heir to one of the country’s great fortunes, and a clearly unhinged wrestling fanatic, Du Pont offers Mark the opportunity to train, at his Foxcatcher Farm, under du Pont’s guidance. Interested in escaping the shadow of his older, more illustrious wrestler brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), and taken with du Pont’s fatherly encouragement and talk of restoring America’s power and pride through sport, Mark agrees. He triumphs at the World Championships under du Pont’s tutelage, and comes to believe that his fortunes have forever changed.

They have, of course. Miller’s ominously dour, wintery aesthetics – as well as the oppressive silence that encases so many of his protracted conversational scenes – leave little doubt that doom awaits Mark, du Pont and Dave, the last of whom eventually, and reluctantly, agrees to join Mark as a coach at Foxcatcher. By that point Foxcatcher has already begun its descent toward twisted tragedy, which Miller charts with all sorts of acute, telling details that speak to Mark and du Pont’s kindred desires to prove themselves. For Mark, that involves acquiring self-esteem and appreciation through athletic triumph, and for du Pont, it means showing his famed horsewoman mother (Vanessa Redgrave) that he’s not a child to be coddled and controlled. Mark wants to prove he’s a leader, a winner and, most of all, a mighty American male.

With halting speech, closely cropped hair, and a large brow that casts a shadow over his small eyes (characteristics also possessed by Tatum), Carell portrays du Pont as an alien studying a fascinating foreign race he hopes to join – no surprise that his other pastime is bird-watching. It’s a subtly layered performance, full of outward mannerisms that cast him as creepy, but underscored by a deeper, warped longing for acceptance as a respected and revered mentor-father-figure adult – a status that briefly seems achievable via his relationship with Mark, and then turns more elusive as their friendship is strained by failures, manipulation, and substance abuse.

To its detriment, Foxcatcher doesn’t address the fact that, no matter his other crazed hang-ups, the real du Pont was also a paranoid schizophrenic – a key omission that undercuts its otherwise assured conception of the character. Nonetheless, the film’s air of chilly menace is as meticulously crafted as its psychological portraits. Bald and bespecled, Ruffalo brings both a hunched brawniness and prickly dignity to Dave, who becomes caught in a figurative tug-of-war with Du Pont for Mark’s loyalty and affection. The film’s true star, however, is Tatum. Boasting a stilted gait that morphs into ferocious swiftness on the mat, and exuding a gnawing hunger for admiration and self-actualization, Tatum embodies Dave with a weighty mixture of regret, resentment, and determination, all of it tied up in the very same notions of American strength and manhood that plague du Pont, who goes by the nickname “Golden Eagle” and complains when an army vehicle he’s purchased is missing a machine gun.

A nightmarish fantasia about flawed men futilely attempting to find and define themselves through knotty physical and emotional bonds (epitomized by an early, nurturing scene of Mark and Dave silently warming up and practicing), Foxcatcher proves a precise, potent powerhouse about individual and national macho insecurities.


Day of the Dead Cartoon The Book of Life Offers Speedy Gonzalez-Level Ethnic Humor

Encouraging a sensitive boy to win over an ostensibly independent girl by, in her words, “always [following his] heart,” Mexican animated fable The Book of Life‘s hackneyed stock plot preaches tolerance while lamely reinforcing the status quo. Realistically, you shouldn’t expect penetrating life lessons from a film where balladeer Manolo (Diego Luna) digs deep inside himself to serenade sassy heroine Maria (Zoe Saldana) but only dredges up Hallmark Card–ready sentimentality: a constellation of candles, an instantly forgettable sunset, and a bad cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”

But The Book of Life‘s plot hinges on Manolo and war-hero Joaquin’s (Channing Tatum) romantic rivalry, making pseudo-empowered Maria — she knows kung fu! — a human prize. Manolo and Joaquin’s contest is encouraged by Xibalba and La Muerte (Ron Perlman and Kate del Castillo), dueling rulers of the afterlife who bet on who will wed Maria. The ghosts of Manolo’s family further validate his quest by returning to help him on the Día de los Muertos.

The film’s rote right-makes-might fantasy wouldn’t be so obnoxious if pandering to the lowest common denominator wasn’t its default mode. You might be able to forgive the Shrek-worthy jukebox soundtrack, including covers of Radiohead’s “Creep” and Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend.”

But you can’t escape the Speedy Gonzalez–level ethnic humor — the filmmakers literally put facial hair and sombreros on everything, including a mustachioed globe and its sombrero-shaped spiral galaxy home. Instead of swinging for the fences, The Book of Life bunts, and still strikes out.


Again and Again, 22 Jump Street’s Lord and Miller Turn Crap Ideas Into Movie Gold

When Phil Lord and Chris Miller pitched their idea for a 21 Jump Street movie, a film everyone thought was, at best, a moronic moneymaker, they had one bold proposal: “What if the twist is that we try to make it really good?” says Lord. “That’s basically a summary of our entire career.”

Lord and Miller are the zeitgeist’s duo of the moment, a writer-director pair who can take an existing property — Legos, kids’ bedtime stories, an ’80s cop show starring Richard Grieco — and turn it into a critical and commercial success. In this era of franchises, they’re a godsend. Studio executives love them for falling on grenades, the movies that seem destined to be bombs, like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which had languished in development for three years before Sony tossed it to the two unknowns for their directorial debut. (“It wasn’t that risky because it was already a bird with a broken wing,” jokes Miller.) And audiences love them because the resulting flicks are shockingly great.

“It’s kind of a punk rock prank,” laughs Lord. “We’ve got a niche to ourselves of taking what seems like a bad idea and taking advantage of people’s low expectations. It’s a lot easier for it to be, ‘I was expecting this to be a giant turd and it wasn’t!’ instead of, ‘I thought this would be an Oscar-winner and it’s just OK.'”

In the self-referential recap that opens 22 Jump Street, the follow-up to Lord and Miller’s miraculous 2012 hit starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as two policeman sent to infiltrate a high school drug ring, deputy chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) starts things off with a stern meta-rebuke. “You got lucky,” he grumbles. “Anyone with half a brain thought it would fail spectacularly.”

Now, the problem for both the fictional cops and their real-life creators is that we expect them to succeed. Four home runs into Lord and Miller’s career (21, Cloudy and its sequel, The Lego Movie), people finally assume that they’ll make something awesome. But the only thing more challenging than a comedy about a goofy old TV show is a comedy sequel where they’ve lost the element of surprise.

The pair brainstormed fresh concepts, then tossed them for being less funny than the original. Then they decided to embrace the staleness.

“We leaned into the conundrum,” says Miller. Every peril of a sequel is made literal: 22 Jump Street has the same plot — a campus narcotics deal to bust — and a visibly higher budget. Their new headquarters, right across the street from their old one, have been upgraded with fancy equipment and, inexplicably, a shark tank. Even Tatum and Hill’s characters, now posing as college roommates, are getting bored of each other. Explains Miller, “When the sequel became a metaphor for their relationship, that’s when we realized there’s actually a story worth telling.”

It’s tempting to analyze the parallels further to wonder what the movie hints about Lord and Miller’s own partnership. They met at Dartmouth, shared a bedroom in L.A. (“We had, like, Bert and Ernie beds,” admits Miller), and have spent their careers side by side. When writing separately, they confess to hearing each other’s voices in their heads. Brainstorming how Tatum and Hill would get weary of their enforced bond, they risked jokes that cut close to the bone.

“We probably should have used it as a tool more to talk about our own relationship,” says Miller. “Well, we kind of did: two men who are incredibly avoidant about talking about their own relationship, but for years.”

At least re-teaming with Tatum and Hill eased their challenge. In the two years since, Hill’s scored his second Oscar nomination (“Maybe three times after this one!” Miller fake-blusters) and proven that he can do drama. Meanwhile, Tatum, the wifebeater-clad pin-up voted People‘s 2012 Sexiest Man Alive, has proven he’s hilarious.

“The first time, Channing was a little nervous. It was his first time doing comedy and he was afraid he was going to put himself out there and fall on his face,” says Miller. “This time, he had great faith. He’s like an old-school actor where they can all dance and sing and perform and do jokes and serious stuff and cry on command. He’s always making everybody who’s holding the purse strings nervous that he’s going to break a leg and shut down production.”

“He can’t break legs,” insists Lord. “He has an Adamantium skeleton — a Channingmantium skeleton.”

Yet 22 Jump Street suggests the franchise has a fatal curse. One month before the first film opened, Whitney Houston died, forcing Sony to cut a gag at the pop singer’s expense. This time, there’s a recurring Maya Angelou one-liner and no time for a re-edit. If there’s a third film — or a 45th, as the closing credits warn — Lord has a new rule: “Don’t put any famous African American women in it because you’ll be responsible.”

For now, having rejected Ghostbusters 3, a grenade no director has dared pick up, Miller’s working on something really scary: a wholly original script that Lord wants to produce.

“It would be a nice change of pace to do something where people had good expectations going in,” says Miller. “Although it could be dangerous.”


22 Jump Street’s Funny Enough — Except for the Tired Gay Jokes

One of the biggest selling points of 21 Jump Street, the 2012 TV-remake comedy, turned out to be its seemingly unscripted lunacy, the way it put Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in police-shorts outfits and let them riff on their characters’ mutual ineptitude. Sometimes you need a little flapdoodle, and the fun of watching Tatum and Hill ribbing each other for 90-odd minutes was more than enough to make up for the movie’s bumpy, bagful-of-gags shape. As undercover cops who pose as teenagers to root out drug dealers at the local high school, Tatum and Hill made an unlikely but weirdly charming team: Tatum’s Jenko was the sleepy-eyed jock with no qualms about slipping back into high-school society, clearly happy to re-create the best years of his life. Hill’s Schmidt was the awkward but bright loser who’d probably had more than a lifetime’s worth of being slammed into lockers. Their Mutt-and-Jeff bickering eventually mellowed into a friendship as comfy as a rumpled T-shirt, and watching them jab elbows along the way was a ridiculous delight. They wore the scars of their bruiser bromance like late-night drunken tattoos.

Now there’s a sequel, named, with brilliant illogic, 22 Jump Street, but the magic has dimmed a bit. This time Jenko and Schmidt have been assigned to a local college — their boss, once again, is played by a splendidly surly Ice Cube — where it’s their duty to find and arrest the dealer who’s spreading a powerful drug around campus. It’s called WHYPHY (pronounced “Wi-Fi,” in case you couldn’t guess) and it’s a miracle substance that makes you really focused for an hour or so, and then totally messes up your head, in the good way. Unfortunately, the person responsible just may be Jenko’s new best friend, a puka-shell-wearing football player and frat guy named Zook (Wyatt Russell, son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and bearing the comic-timing DNA of both).

Schmidt’s feelings are deeply hurt by Jenko’s preoccupation with his new buddy, though he tries not to show it. He keeps himself busy by scrambling onstage at a poetry slam (sample lyric: “Jesus cried. Runaway bride!”) in order to impress a possible love interest (played by Amber Stevens, an actress with Nefertiti eyes). Meanwhile, Jenko and Zook get along like fraternity brothers: They spot each other during grunt-heavy weight-lifting sessions, and Zook is duly impressed by Jenko’s ability to remove beer-bottle caps with his eye sockets. Jenko and Schmidt drift apart; the movie makes numerous homoerotic references to this fading friendship, but only in a “Totally yankin’ your chain, bro!” way.

It’s there that 22 Jump Street wobbles off the rails. The directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the masterminds of not just 21 Jump Street but also The Lego Movie and the much-loved Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), along with writers Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman, pack the movie with lots of loosey-goosey dynamite, jokes that revel in their own puerility, accompanied by a knowing wink. But Lord and Miller go overboard on the nudge-nudge gay jokes, as when Jenko and Schmidt find themselves in a counseling session with a shrink who assumes they’re a couple. “I feel like he’s just not trying anymore!” Schmidt wails. Jenko retorts that he could just use a little more space. It’s not that this gag, or any of the others in 22 Jump Street, is blatantly homophobic. (And Hill’s recent real-life outburst, in which he flung an unacceptable word at a paparazzo who was harassing him, shouldn’t be held against the movie. Even in a world rife with teary celebrity retractions, Hill’s subsequent Tonight Show apology suggested genuine regret.) It may just be that Lord and Miller are misfiring in their attempts to explore the complexities of friendships between men. But whatever they’re trying to say remains indistinct and noncommittal, even as they seem a little too obsessed with it; the recurring “gay, not-gay” jokes are neither particularly funny nor insightful, and they push the movie slightly out of whack.

But then, suddenly, there’s Tatum’s Jenko trying to cut a pane of glass with a laser pointer, and it’s easy to forgive. 22 Jump Street isn’t uncharitable or mean-spirited; at worst, it’s just confused. Tatum is, predictably, adorable. His Jenko is a pumped-up naïf bumbling through life with a crooked smile, and Hill again makes a great sparring partner. Hill knows how to milk Schmidt’s hurt feelings for laughs instead of fake pathos — it’s a testament to his gifts that he doesn’t overplay the sad-sack routine.

But the biggest surprise of 22 Jump Street is another duo, the identical-twin comedy team the Lucas Brothers (stars of the marvelous Comedy Central bonbon The Super Late Morning Show, as well as the creators of the Fox animated series Lucas Bros. Moving Co.). As Jenko and Schmidt’s super-laid-back dorm neighbors Keith and Kenny Yang — their African-American-Chinese heritage is part of the joke — they not only finish each other’s sentences but also reel off complete thoughts simultaneously, in perfect synchronicity. What’s wonderful is the surprised delight they show every time this happens, which is often: They turn to each other, facing off in their identical horn-rimmed glasses and upturned caps, and bask in the zany wonder of their from-the-womb mind-meld. The Lucas Brothers, whose names really are Kenny and Keith, don’t get much screen time in 22 Jump Street, but the movie takes a leap whenever they show up. They’re its biggest WHYPHY high.


Cannes Report: In Foxcatcher, Channing Tatum Gives What Must Be One of the Year’s Best Performances

If all of Cannes isn’t it love with Channing Tatum right now, it should be. During the photo-call for Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher on Monday afternoon Tatum — relaxed, affable, light on his feet despite being seriously built — turned toward the press and took a few photographs of the corps with his own camera. He’s not the first celebrity to do this, but I doubt anyone else has done it with so much kicked-back charm. His body language, forced into the inadequacy of actual words, would be: “I’m in Cannes, and it’s awesome!” You can tell just by looking that Tatum doesn’t have the soul of an ingrate. After the press conference, he took his time strolling past another set of photographers, giving everyone a chance at a good shot, and even stopped so a fan could crane in close enough to take a selfie.

For the first time in my life, I felt a pang of selfie jealousy.

Even if Steve Carell’s performance in Foxcatcher — a terrific one — ends up being the most lauded in the film, what Tatum does is more complicated, and more wondrous. Carell plays John Du Pont, the eccentric heir, ornithologist, and wrestling enthusiast who, in the 1980s, turned part of his lavish Delaware County, Pa., estate into a training facility for young athletes, crowning himself “coach” of a team he hoped would become Olympic champs. Tatum plays Mark Schultz, the Olympic gold-winning wrestler who, for a time, nestled under Du Pont’s wing: The socially awkward but seemingly harmless benefactor set himself up as a father figure to Mark, eventually persuading Mark’s brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic gold winner, to coach the team.

Du Pont shot Dave Schultz dead in 1996, and was convicted of third degree murder in 1997. He died in prison in 2010. Miller’s movie attempts to explore, rather than explain, the events leading up to this bizarre murder — his actors aren’t so much giving performances as giving shape and life to human behavior, with all its shadows, kinks, and unspoken insecurities. Miller doesn’t, thank God, go for the easy explanation that Du Pont was romantically and/or sexually obsessed with either brother, though some sort of love or dependency was surely involved. When Du Pont first offers Mark the allegedly golden opportunity of training at the estate, known as Foxcatcher, the young athlete can’t believe his luck, though even then Channing shows flickers of muted cautiousness. Dave, who’s busy building his own life with his family — his wife is played, in a few brief but potent scenes, by Sienna Miller — at first declines to accompany Mark to Foxcatcher, but is won over when the zillionaire puts enough dollars on the table.

Foxcatcher is a meticulously constructed film that never pretends to have all the answers. Miller seems most interested in showcasing his three lead actors, and they repay the favor — this is a trifecta of terrific performances. Though Du Pont is distinctly different from any other character Carell has played, you can still see threads of the shy lone wolf he created in The 40-Year-Old Virgin: His words trickle out in awkward intonations — he seems like the sort of loner you could easily feel sorry for, an everyman eccentric. But when he senses that Mark is pulling away from his tentacle grip, he lashes out with startling cruelty. The opacity of Du Pont’s behavior is terrifying, but Carell doesn’t just play him as your stock possible-psychopath: He gives the character’s blankness shape and dimension — he’s a deadpan menace.

Ruffalo’s Dave is the most stable, grounded point of this wobbly triangle: Dave picks up on Du Pont’s disquieting intensity even before his brother does, and Ruffalo brings so much gravity to the role that we feel protected by him too — it’s as if nothing can go wrong when he’s around. (Bearded and with an artificially receding hairline, he’s also a dead ringer for the ’70s-era Brian De Palma — what a role that would be.)

But of the three performances, Tatum’s is the most fine-grained. If the real test of an actor is what he does with a mediocre role as opposed to a great one, Tatum passed long ago, in movies like the 2010 Nicholas Sparks adaptation Dear John and 2011’s The Son of No One. He was the best thing about both of those pictures, though for a time after he made his big splash in the 2006 urban dance drama Step Up, no one knew quite what to do with him: He kept getting cast as earnest soldiers and stolid cops, roles that suited him but also limited him. Still, he was quietly believable every time, the kind of actor who absorbs stray bits of energy around him and reflects them back as molecules of light. I once wrote that while I thought he was a wonderful actor, I didn’t think he’d become a big star because his gifts were too subtle to translate into that kind of recognition. I’m thrilled that I’ve been proven wrong.

How, exactly, do you play an athlete who shuts down emotionally, as Mark does when Du Pont’s controlling monomania becomes too much to bear? An athlete may hide his feelings, but his body — so disciplined in a language all its own — is constantly in the way, inadvertently betraying secrets. Tatum pulls off the tricky feat of shading his character’s emotions without shutting down so much that the camera can’t pick them up. And his body, even with its firm arcs of muscle, is as graceful as a Brancusi poised to take flight; it tells us all the things Mark is afraid to say with his eyes. Tatum’s performance is a marvel of physicality, and surely one of the best we’ll see all year. A wrestler on the outside and a dancer within, he uses every muscle he’s got.

The weekend press screening of Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep was one of the hottest tickets of the festival — so hot that, even though I arrived in what should have been plenty of time, I was shut out. Ceylan is a favorite here — his meditative 2011 drama Once Upon a Time in Anatolia was a co-winner of the Grand Prix that year, and even if his particularly deliberate brand of filmmaking isn’t quite to your taste, his pictures always deserve a look, if only because his visual sense is acute and exquisite. But even though Winter Sleep — a drama, inspired by Chekhov, about an unhappy marriage between a misanthropic writer (Haluk Bilginer) and his much younger, and intensely frustrated, wife (Melisa Sozen) — has been adored by many critics here, its charms somehow slipped away from me in the course of its three-plus hours. As always with Ceylan, the movie is beautifully filmed, capturing the jagged patchwork beauty of the rural Anatolian landscape in a way that also defines the characters’ place in it. And there’s always tenderness in Ceylan’s filmmaking: He has a great deal of affection for his characters.

But the movie is loquacious to a fault, using many, many words and all too many searching, penetrating looks in the service of the following formula: Characters’ faults come crashing to the shore in mighty waves, only to recede, leaving their pure and wondrous humanity behind. It doesn’t take long for us to get the drift. Chekhov did it better, and shorter.


White House Down Is the Most Sharply Observed Spoof Comedy Since Team America

Surprising proof that Hollywood still can craft a memorable studio comedy, Roland Emmerich’s White House Down stands as a singular achievement in parody, its auteur’s intentions be damned. It’s not just a pitch-perfect attack on every risible plot point afflicting today’s all-exposition-and-explosion filmmaking, it’s also a mad liberal’s vision of an America beset by white wingnut terrorists, set in a sketch-comedy White House so broad that if you didn’t know Jamie Foxx was starring as its president you might guess it to be Leslie Nielsen.

Apologies if revealing that the terrorists are Stormfront-types strikes you as a spoiler. Doing justice to the breadth of hilarity on display here will involve divulging some details, but the film is as crazy-dumb durable as a Twinkie. Lifetimes could pass with me spilling its secrets, and it would still sit there, spongy and triumphant.

That would include celebrating, in point-by-point specifics, the delicious way every single thing any person says or does in the first half-hour pays off much later in the most rousing, ridiculous ways—in moments audiences will applaud out of appreciation that, at last, the most shameless tricks of the most shameless directors have been exposed by a master satirist. Remember the hurt you felt when Spielberg, in that Jurassic Park sequel, threw a set of uneven bars into a dino-island storage shed just so the acrobatic skills the tween daughter had mentioned on the mainland could come back to dispatch those raptors? A bit of flag-team heroism in White House Down does to that moment what Airplane did to Airport, what Walk Hard did to Walk the Line, what Emmerich’s own The Day After Tomorrow did to real global warming. The tragic is inflated to sublime comedy.

(Sorry: spoiler for Jurassic Park: The Lost World.)

Anyway, if a stupid moment has turned up in too many movies, it’s here, too, only funnier. I probably shouldn’t mention that a straight-arrow character’s weirdly comic ringtone—”The Spanish Flea”!—heard in the first 15 minutes might happen to be crucial in the last 10. Or that there’s key exposition embedded in the scene where a know-it-all kid schools a White House tour guide—a tour guide who later stands up to armed, murdering terrorists to defend a precious vase. (Pronounced vahzz, of course, just like Margaret Dumont would. She was also in comedies!) Or the way that Emmerich—whose other comic mode is idiot destruction à la Jonathan Winters at the gas station in It’s a Mad, Mad World—actually finds a way to stage a car chase without leaving the White House. Three armored SUVs circle the North Lawn Fountain, like Chevy Chase’s family stuck in the Parisian roundabout in European Vacation, which is nowhere near as funny as this movie. Then the president of the United States fires a rocket launcher out the window of a car while terrorists are machine-gunning him—a vicious burlesque, perhaps, of Harrison Ford’s President Bad-Ass back in Air Force One.

There is a story to all this. Set in a science-fiction America where nobody’s ever seen Die Hard, White House Down imagines that, in the name of peace, wise President Jamie Foxx has asked Congress to pull every American troop from the Middle East because he has struck a bargain with the new president of Iran. The opposition party’s speaker of the house objects, for some reason. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum (playing a character whose name I bet he, too, would have to look up) is visiting the White House with his YouTubing scamp of an estranged daughter (Joey King)—a devastating critique of movies’ impossible children.

Tatum, playing a war-hero D.C. cop, interviews for a job with the Secret Service and is told by his old friend Maggie Gyllenhaal that, ick, he’s too working-class to guard the president because he got C’s in college. So, his dreams shot, and his daughter not believing in him, Tatum slumps along with a White House tour, his overcooked plight skewering a common fallacy of Hollywood heroism: Every one of this character’s personal problems are solved by the bad guys’ evil scheming.

Just in time, cue the terrorists, who are actually more than mere rightwing cranks. I won’t spill their leaders’ affiliation, but I will give this hint: It’s with one of the industrial complexes.

From there we get the most sharply observed spoof comedy since Team America. All the conventions of PG-13 suspense films take their well-deserved knocks: The dozens of dead hardly bleed, the word “fuck” is only spat once during the greatest crisis America’s ever faced, children endlessly weep with guns in their faces. (“What monsters would take this material seriously?” the movie seems to be asking.) Eventually, Foxx and Tatum team up, kill some assholes, tenderly treat each other’s wounds, and leave you hoping the producers ponied up for the rights to play “I Will Always Love You.” The shootouts aren’t as clear or funny as the ones in those paintball episodes of Community, but you’ve seen much worse.

My favorite bit: Foxx says, early on, in a bang-on parody of a vapid hopeful speech, that his peace plan will prove the pen is mightier than the sword. Later (spoiler!), in the Oval Office, the chief bad guy quotes that back. Guess what non-weapon object President Foxx then jabs into his neck. Come on—guess!

Often, the hilarity is indisputably intentional. If you think you’ll laugh and clap, try it; if you know you’ll hate it, you’re right. A fun drinking game: Once the dramatic eight-minute countdown clock starts, estimate how long it takes to get near zero. I guess at least 25 minutes.


10 Years: Reeling in the Oughts

An amiable, seriocomic high-school-reunion movie, 10 Years succeeds in pulling off a fine varsity talent show. Although some performers, notably Channing Tatum, who also produced, and Ari Graynor, are more appealing than others, the film is admirably consistent in its nostalgia-averse exploration of the uncertainties that define one’s late twenties.

A decade after graduating from Lake Howell High School (in a never-specified city and state, though the film was shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico), a group of a dozen or so former classmates, scattered around the world, fly or drive in to reconvene at a local boutique hotel, where they clutch drink tickets and head-bob to Fatboy Slim. Married with kids and still rooted in their hometown, high school sweethearts Cully (Chris Pratt), an unreformed churl now selling cars, and Sam (Graynor), a former cheerleader who spends most of her days cleaning up after her two toddlers and piggy spouse, have the shortest commute to the reunion; Scott (Scott Porter), a resident of Japan for the past several years, has the longest.

Beyond geographical distance, these millennials, just past their quarter-life, are at various stages of personal happiness and professional success. Most have settled into mid-level white-collar jobs, like mortgage broker Jake (Tatum), affianced to Jess (Jenna Dewan-Tatum, Channing’s real-life bride), one of several romantic partners/outsiders who gamely put up with a roomful of strangers and their adolescent in-jokes. Reeves (Oscar Isaac) is the bona fide celebrity of the class of ’02, a pop star whose biggest hit turns out to have been written for the woman he has had a crush on since physics class (Kate Mara, whose alarmingly cadaverous frame is shared by a few other female cast mates). Senior-year sex bomb Anna (Lynn Collins), on the other hand, still struts, poses, and flirts—a display of bravado masking the grim realities at home.

So over the course of a boozy night filled with karaoke and awkward attempts to make amends, 10 Years compassionately presents a series of recognizable young-adult crises: strained relationships, poorly timed rekindled romantic feelings, steady-if-soul-crushing employment. The warmth of the film stems from a key prior collaboration. Although 10 Years is writer-director Jamie Linden’s helming debut, it marks his second time working with Tatum after 2010’s Dear John, a Nicholas Sparks adaptation scripted by Linden that first showed the depths and complexities of the actor’s on-screen butch reticence. Now one of American cinema’s most appealing male leads, Tatum has only gotten better since then. In 21 Jump Street, his first movie this year about revisiting high school and his first leading role in a comedy, he brought a touching pathos to his meathead part, the once-popular jock struggling to fit in long after graduating. Tatum displays similar insecurities and regrets in 10 Years as Jake, anointed prom king back in the day (he and his would-be queen, played by Rosario Dawson, never made it to the dance, for reasons revealed later) looks at a wall of high school photos and can only rue, “Shit, why does it feel so long ago?”

That nagging sense of disappointment and the increased awareness of time passing—and of one compromise too many made before the age of 30—is also nicely handled by Graynor, who has been almost as busy as Tatum this year (this is her third film to be released in six weeks). Her slow burn as Cully drinks himself into a stupor, terrorizing anew those schoolmates he aggressively tries to apologize to for decade-old assaults, corrosively reveals the pent-up rage of a spouse disgusted by her mate—and herself for continuing to put up with his awful behavior.

Although it bounces nimbly from character to character and dyad to dyad, 10 Years is parsimonious with the screen time given to its nonwhite actors: The always-welcome Anthony Mackie is underused, and Eiko Nijo, who plays Scott’s Japanese wife, utters not one (non-karaoked) word. Despite this stinginess, 10 Years is an uncommonly magnanimous project, kind not only to its stumbling characters but also to audiences tired of films pruned of unruly emotions.


Ginuwine Strips It Down

Steven Soderbergh’s Channing Tatum vehicle Magic Mike is a thrilling if somewhat dialogue-light film set in a male strip club in Florida, chock-full of bared male body parts and shots of women reacting to their being unveiled. Much of the movie goes by in a series of montages and hip thrusts, but at one point, the swirling action both stops and becomes absolutely spellbinding: Tatum (upon whose stripper past the movie is based) takes the stage at Xquisite to Ginuwine’s glitchy, Timbaland-produced debut single “Pony.” This public performance actually doubles as a one-on-one love scene in a way; Tatum’s character’s romantic interest, played by the steely eyed Cody Horn, gets to see the dance unfold and gets appropriately intrigued. (With good reason; Tatum flexes an impressive array of the moves he learned while grinding away in the exotic-dancer salt mines.)

Tatum’s dance was, in a sense, the pinnacle (and one hopes culmination) of an online trend in which people would record themselves dancing alone to the song, trying to be “sexy” for the camera. Known simply as “Dancing Alone to Pony,” the one-note joke—the type of quick-ha-ha-inducing gag that would get passed around among friends on Facebook and be approvingly tagged with the term “viral” by some marketing mucky-muck—inspired a Tumblr and a few video mash-ups in addition to quite a bit of awkward thrusting; in one pairing, someone matched up Ginuwine’s slinky track with Thom Yorke’s herky-jerk movements from Radiohead’s 2011 video for the comparably dreary “Lotus Flower.”

In some sections of the Internet, the sort of sexuality that “Pony” celebrates—sorta louche, definitely overt, punctuated by electronic wiggles and blips—often gets derisively giggled at by the desk jockeys who steer the ship of workaday online discourse. But during Saturday’s Ginuwine show at B.B. King’s in Times Square, the mood was much more serious. Not in a dour way, mind you; the crowd, which was mostly made up of women (including one woman on a date near me who cheered and raised her arms when Ginuwine asked if there were any single ladies in the building, then sheepishly grabbed her male companion’s hand when she lowered them), hooted and hollered and sang along, and caught their breath as one when he undid a button on his shirt a few tracks in.

Before Saturday, Magic Mike, a scene from the 1983 Michael Keaton recession comedy Mr. Mom, and a couple of special sitcom episodes from the ’80s were as close as I’d gotten to the male-strip-club experience; the Ginuwine show supplanted all of those easily. The supper club setup of B.B. King’s helped; most of the crowd was seated (except for a few hopeful women who stood at the lip of the stage and waited to get some shine from the night’s main attraction), sipping cocktails and nibbling off small plates. But the need for release was the real reason for the charged atmosphere; before Ginuwine took the stage, an attendant arranged roses in buckets around his microphone, which prompted one woman at my table to say expectantly, “He’s going to give out roses and take off his shirt.” (He only wound up doing one of those things, though he effectively teased the other.)

The 41-year-old singer came out as his band—11 members, by my count, though there might have been more crowded onto the subterranean club’s stage—tore through a go-go vamp. Despite the electro snap of “Pony,” the musical mood for most of the night was rooted in older soul; Ginuwine roared and shuddered, his backup singers nearly matched him, saxophone solos squealed in a way that brought to mind Miami Vice montages, and the night’s set list included a cover of Michael Jackson’s Thriller deep cut “The Lady in My Life.” (The night wasn’t entirely of another time; at one point, he asked the crowd if anyone was on Twitter—a message early Monday morning linked to photos of the show—and he took out his cameraphone to snap a couple of pictures of the crowd.) He performed the defiant your-gal-pals-don’t-know track “None of Ur Friends Business” with a look on his face that seemed to be the result of him internally summoning the gossip that swirled around him; he treated the approving “In Those Jeans” like it was foreplay individually tailored to the needs of each member of the audience. Which wasn’t his only seasoned-pro move—he offered up a sweat-dappled towel; he said multiple times how much he loved playing B.B. King’s; and he shouted out past collaborators like Timbaland, Missy Elliott, and Aaliyah, as well as his son, who (surprise!) had done a turn as his opening act.

And then it was time for “Pony,” its Timbaland-supplied squawk overtaking the sound system before the band joined in. Ginuwine urged the crowd to get up out of their seats and disembarked the stage, hopping onto one of the barriers between B.B. King’s inner and outer bowls. Women surrounded him, cameraphones and adoration and sing-alongs at the ready, and while he didn’t take his shirt off—though he had changed into a tee earlier in the evening—his reception was no less rapturous. The back-and-forth of the pleading chorus went on for a while, Ginuwine basking in the adulation and the audience basking in the way he was soaking in it; the whole exchange probably could have lasted half an hour, and nobody would have minded, save the people scheduled to play the late show.

“Pony” was followed by a cover of Prince’s “Baby I’m a Star,” a track off the almost-30-year-old soundtrack to the funk-rock legend’s first film, Purple Rain. The song is a delighted boast in which Prince makes a case for his overwhelming magnetism; “Hey, look me over,” it declares in its opening line, and the torrid, breathlessly paced music makes the case for attention as much as any of the lyrical boasts. Following up “Pony” with this track on Saturday was an almost-too-perfect victory lap; sure, Ginuwine’s most notorious track remains sexy in its sweet 16th year of existence, but he sells it like no other, even as he keeps on his shirt and pants.


Magic Mike: A Star Is Bared

When Channing Tatum stood up and revealed his bare ass to the camera a minute or two into Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike—which the actor conceived of and produced based on his own experience as a teenage dancer in an all-male exotic revue—the audience in my screening burst into a near-unanimous extended cheer. The gifts that made him a viable exotic dancer at age 18 have recently made the 32-year-old Tatum the male movie star of the moment. His appeal is based on working-class humility paired with otherworldly charisma, an impossible body, and the intelligence to make his use of it seem effortless. Now, as then, he never fails to give us what we paid to see. But what is he really revealing? The highly calculated Magic Mike is pure Hollywood self-mythology—a neo-Depression musical, a wish-fulfillment fantasy for shitty times, an origin-of-the-star story, and a projection of that star’s hoped-for future.

Tatum’s Mike is the main attraction at Xquisite, a Tampa pop-up strip club whose male dancers cater to an all-female clientele. Stripping is just one of wannabe furniture designer Mike’s many jobs; on a roofing gig, he’s assigned to mentor scrappy newbie Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a 19-year-old rebel with neither cause nor clue, who recently fucked up a football scholarship and sought refuge on the couch of his shit-together sister Brooke (intriguing newcomer Cody Horn). Mike, his own career peaking at age 30, takes pity on the penniless Adam and brings him into the Xquisite fold. That seems to be the way things go around there; Mike himself was discovered on the street by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the club’s manager/main hustler, who keeps talking about moving the show to Miami and dangling equity in front of his stars to keep them invested. As young Adam embraces this new world of easy cash and responsibility-free pussy, Mike, natch, increasingly wonders if there’s a different/better life available to him, particularly because neither the fetching Brooke nor a bisexual academic played by Olivia Munn seem inclined to see a male stripper as anything but a fuck buddy.

The film suggests that the ladies’ prejudices are valid. “Who’s got the cock?” Dallas asks Adam during his first dance lesson. “You do. They don’t.” The idea that these Kings of Tampa, as members of the ragtag strip crew call themselves, are giving the local housewives and sorority girls something they don’t have and desperately need is stated several times in earnest dialogue, but the actual transactions are shown as farce. (The movie’s cruelest joke is snuck into a wacky-times montage: One of the dancers lifts an eager fat girl out of the crowd . . . and throws his back out.) That this film contains an ironic patriotic Fourth of July dance spectacular—with McConaughey as Uncle Sam leading a brigade of topless boys in fatigue pants in choreography belaboring the connection between automatic weapons and anatomical ones—is a given, right? No less spectacular than this sleazy homage to Holiday Inn is the scene in which Tatum dons upstanding-citizen drag to apply for a small-business loan. Told his low credit rating brands him as a “distressed” client, Mike fires back: “I read the news. I know the ones in distress are y’all.”

Occupy Chippendales? If only. The few moments wherein Magic Mike calls American institutions into question are undercut and overshadowed by the film’s dated insistence on the dream of legitimacy. Mike and friends move in a cash-only society, hitting a glass ceiling any time they try to pass in the straight world. This milieu, typical and unremarkable in so much current European cinema, is given in Magic Mike a retrograde, cautionary spin. In this under-the-table economy, it’s a slippery slope from cruising Craigslist for day-labor gigs to showing one’s ass for tips to big-money drug deals. Eventually, someone drives away from the strip club in tears, not because this is a plausible turn of events for the character, but because that’s what has to happen in a Hollywood movie about the sex industry.

An extremely conventional backstage story, Magic Mike is occasionally enlivened by Soderbergh’s aesthetic curveballs—the halo-shaped lens flares suggesting Adam’s halcyon view of the club; a long night of debauchery with major plot consequences rendered as an experimental study in color and shadow. But the denouement, built around the hoariest of contrivances concerning the cyclical nature of stardom, squarely casts its lot against self-commodification, by extension damning the margins and endorsing the mainstream.

That throws a wet blanket on the movie’s primary point of interest: its self-reflexive portrait of three distinct points in the Hollywood himbo life cycle. As the still ogle-worthy old-timer, McConaughey is Magic Mike‘s most wasted asset. Dallas’s onstage patter incorporates the actor’s most identifiable catchphrase—”all right, all right, all right!”—which he injected into the popular imagination via Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. In that film, McConaughey’s Wooderson was the older guy who continued to hang around teenagers, almost vampirically. Twenty years later, McConaughey is essentially performing the same function here. But why? At the most fascinating moment in his career, McConaughey gets stuck in an underwritten role that demands physical exposure, but is (sorry) only skin-deep.