The 50-Year-Old Virgin: How ‘Foxcatcher’ Warps Steve Carell’s Funny Persona Into Something Terrifying
What’s a comedian to do when he or she finally achieves A-list status? For decades now, the answer has been, “try drama.” From Eddie Murphy and Jim Carrey to Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig, the biggest comedy stars have long sought new creative opportunities—and validation as actors—by shying away from their comfort zones and into more sober, serious territory. That trend continues this Friday with the release of the based-on-real-events ‘Foxcatcher.’ Steve Carell slips into the skin of John du Pont, a reclusive millionaire who took in and mentored Olympic wrestling champions Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) to ultimately tragic ends.
For Carell, it’s a role that builds upon his solid dramatic work in 2007’s ‘Dan in Real Life’ and 2013’s ‘The Way Way Back.’ But more importantly, it’s a part that’s tailor-made for the comedian, because it functions as a dark flip-side to his trademark funny-man persona. Just as Adam Sandler mined his signature angry-doofus routine for disturbing pathos in ‘Punch-Drunk Love,’ and Jim Carrey repurposed his manic mugging instincts for sorrowful romance in ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,’ Carell’s turn in ‘Foxcatcher’ takes many of the elements that define the actor’s most amusing performances and warps them into something volatile and unsettling. Chillingly unhinged and unpredictable, his du Pont is a nightmare mirror image of his previously paternalistic man-child weirdoes.
Du Pont’s social awkwardness and childlike behavior bears a strong resemblance to Carell’s past performances—and, specifically, to the dumbest weatherman in fake-TV history, ‘Anchorman’’s Brick Tamland. Like Tamland, Carell’s du Pont is also akin to an overgrown kid, but here, it’s far from amusing. By becoming a benefactor and coach to wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), du Pont hopes to show up his championship horse-training mommy (Vanessa Redgrave) and prove his manhood. The immaturity of that motivation is then further underscored by a conversation with his mother about his beloved toy-train set, while his ill-at-ease social interactions are epitomized by a late sequence in which he pathetically tries to “perform” as a coach in front of his mother (who views wrestling as a “low” sport).
The roots of du Pont’s ungainly social behavior can also be traced to Carell’s manager-du-buffoonery on NBC’s long-running sitcom ‘The Office.’ Michael Scott’s insecure desire to be respected, and to be seen as a highly-regarded leader, is likewise found in du Pont and his quest to become an Olympic wrestling bigwig. Moreover, Scott’s clingy neediness is echoed in du Pont’s increasingly obsessive attempts to retain the affection and adoration of Schultz—as well as to maintain control over him—once their relationship begins to fracture under the weight of du Pont’s suffocating control. They’re both little men awkwardly striving to craft an image of themselves as Big Men in Charge.
"Carell continues to be fascinated by the extreme insanity, and unintended costs, of stunted-adolescent syndrome."
While ‘Foxcatcher’ makes no mention of du Pont’s carnal proclivities, there are suggestions that he harbors repressed sexual feelings for Schultz (and, via his interest in wrestling, men in general). Consequently he stands as a bleak depiction of what happens when such urges are subdued, or at least hindered by a more general stunted adolescence. That, in turn, aligns him with Carell’s ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ protagonist Andy Stitzer, who finds himself on the outside of male-female relations in Judd Apatow’s man-child comedy. While Andy’s love of action figures, disinterest in sex, and general kid-in-an-adult’s-body behavior are cast as things to be both laughed at and empathized with, that’s definitely not true of du Pont, whose nearly identical attributes speak volumes about his dissociation with reality and humanity.
Du Pont’s detachment (and lack of empathy for others) is also seen in ‘The Way Way Back’’s Trent Ramsay, perhaps the least likable character in the pre-‘Foxcatcher’ Carell oeuvre. A cheating louse with a cocky streak as long as the beach, Ramsay is the epitome of mom’s-new-boyfriend ugliness, a me-first guy whose entitlement takes precedence over everything else, and who’s not afraid to deliver unpleasant opinions with ugly bluntness. While Carell’s du Pont doesn’t exhibit Trent’s interest in infidelity, the two are cut from a similar cloth—deceitful, self-interested, and, when their easygoing facades are finally cracked, out-and-out nasty. In hindsight, Trent’s domestic villainy feels like a warm-up for du Pont’s psychosis.
Of course, if we’re talking about Carell’s familiarity with villainy, there’s no ignoring ‘Despicable Me’’s Gru, the endearing bad guy whose yearning to achieve super-villain status is complicated by the bonds he forms with the trio of cute orphaned girls he adopts. Gru’s burning competitiveness (found in his rivalry with adversary Vector) and attempts to guide a group of young charges (both human and Minion) are repurposed to far more adult, perverse ends in ‘Foxcatcher,’ where du Pont’s leader-of-the-pack craziness is anything but charming. Taking Gru’s fatherly impulses to their lunatic extreme, Du Pont proves to be a surrogate paterfamilias of the most disturbing, demented kind.
On screen and in real life, Carell hardly comes across as a comedian of the darkly tortured, troubled variety—an impression backed up by his recent appearance on ‘The Daily Show,’ in which he playfully mocked such suggestions. And yet as evidenced by his turn as du Pont, he continues to be fascinated by the extreme insanity, and unintended costs, of stunted-adolescent syndrome. It may be a dramatic tour-de-force, but his work in ‘Foxcatcher’ is less a detour than a canny continuation of his life’s work—and, thus, an example of an artist taking chances while nevertheless remaining true to himself.
Nick Schager has written for The Village Voice, Esquire, The AV Club and The Dissolve. You can contact him directly on Twitter.[googleAd adunit="cutout-placeholder" placeholder="cutout-placeholder"]