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Satirists Go Serious in 'Foxcatcher' And 'Rosewater' — And It Works

Nov 14, 2014
Originally published on November 14, 2014 5:34 pm

What do you get when you mix big-deal comedians with real-life calamities? Sounds like a joke, but Steve Carell and Jon Stewart are answering that question this week in their movies Foxcatcher and Rosewater. And it turns out, seriousness suits them.

In fact, you'll likely do a double-take when you first see Carell's John Dupont in Foxcatcher. Maybe when you first hear him, too. He's the black sheep of the wealthy gunpowder-magnate family circa 1988, and he's all but unrecognizable behind a putty nose and a flat vocal affect that makes words and phrases emerge from him in what sound like burps.

Talking to an Olympic wrestler he's hoping to impress, Carell's Dupont is pasty, heavy, awkward, and when he flashes what he apparently intends as a pleasant smile, it's downright disquieting.

Mark Schultz, the gold medalist he's inviting to train at a facility he's built on his Pennsylvania estate, is played by Channing Tatum with a leaden affect and the wounded look of puppy who's been kicked too often. Mark is the younger of two Olympic medalists in his family. His brother Dave, played with more grace and verve by Mark Ruffalo, has prospered since his Olympic win. Mark, who won later, stalled out quicker, and now, to escape his brother's shadow, he signs on with Dupont, who showers him with money, sparring partners, cocaine, and inspirational speeches that sound increasingly unhinged.

"I am leading men," says Dupont. "I am giving them a dream and I am giving America hope."

A more astute man might realize his patron is ... well, maybe nuts, but Tatum's Mark isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, and just gets himself, and later his brother, in deeper.

Director Bennett Miller is no stranger to sports or personal eccentricity in his films, having directed both Moneyball and the Truman Capote biopic Capote. In Foxcatcher, Miller uses three superb performances to take us deep into a privileged world where the choreographed struggle of wrestling mixes toxically with the psychological struggles of familial disappointment. The film does not — or maybe cannot — explain the inexplicable: the acts of a mentally ill man. But it can make the plight of those in that man's orbit profoundly anguishing.

You might expect anguish from Rosewater, a film drawn by Jon Stewart from BBC journalist Maziar Bahari's book about surviving solitary confinement in an Iranian prison. But while the film can be unnerving as it details the dangers of reporting on opposition demonstrators after Iran's elections, it's also steeped in the sort of humor you'd expect from Stewart, who both wrote and directed the movie. In fact, Stewart's connection with the story was more than moderately intimate: A Daily Show interview done by the real Bahari was used against him in jail. Stewart has actor Gael Garcia Bernal re-enact it with Jason Jones.

Funny to American ears, the sketch, in which Jones claims to be a spy, becomes less funny when Bahari's thrown in prison four days after it airs, and has to defend himself to an interrogator as "just a journalist."

The interrogator — an excellent Kim Bodnia — calls up the interview on his computer.

"Can you tell me," he wonders, "why 'just-a-journalist' would meet up with an American spy?"

Bahari, laughing, tells him it's a comedy show, that Jones is a comedian pretending to be a spy, but that doesn't even blunt the line of questioning.

"So can you tell me why an American pretending to be a spy has chosen to interview you?"

Jon Stewart took several months off from Comedy Central to make this movie last year, and painful as that sabbatical may have been for fans, it turns out to have been worthwhile. Rosewater (the title references the cologne by which the usually blindfolded Bahari recognizes the interrogator) has an urgency that's all about the storytelling smarts of its first-time writer-director. It's also got first-rate acting, the nuance about media manipulation you'd expect from Stewart, and even cinematic grace notes, as when Bernal, in a burst of antic feeling after months of isolation, dances in his cell, remembering a Leonard Cohen song his sister played for him as a child.

Rosewater — and Foxcatcher, too — could doubtless have been anchored by other talents. Their stories needn't have reached us, tears-of-a-clown-style, through Jon Stewart and Steve Carell. But the involvement of those comics proves a remarkable blessing, at least partly because it connects us to their sense of discovery.

What could be more astonishing, after all, than being moved by those we look to for laughter.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

What do you get when you mix big-deal comedians with real-life calamities? Sounds like a joke, but Steve Carell and Jon Stewart are answering that question this week in their respective movies "Foxcatcher" and "Rosewater." We asked our film critic, Bob Mondello, how seriousness suits them.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: You'll do a double-take when you first see Steve Carell in "Foxcatcher," maybe when you first hear him, too, talking to an Olympic wrestler he wants to impress.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOXCATCHER")

STEVE CARELL: (As John Du Pont) Do you have any idea why I asked you to come here today?

CHANNING TATUM: (As Mark Shultz) No.

CARELL: (As John Du Pont) No?

MONDELLO: Carell has adopted a putty nose and a flat vocal affect to play the black sheep of the enormously wealthy du Pont family, circa 1988. He's pasty, heavy, awkward.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOXCATCHER")

CARELL: (As John Du Pont) Some rich guy calls you on the phone - I want Mark Schultz to come visit me.

MONDELLO: He flashes what he apparently intends as a pleasant smile.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOXCATCHER")

CARELL: (As John Du Pont) I'm a - I'm a wrestling coach. And I have a deep love for the sport of wrestling. And I wanted to speak with you about your future - about what you hope to achieve. What do you hope to achieve, Mark?

TATUM: (As Mark Shultz) I want to be the best in the world.

MONDELLO: The wrestler, played by Channing Tatum, is the younger of two Olympic medalists in his family. His brother Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo, has prospered since his Olympic win. Mark, who won later, stalled out quicker and now, to escape his brother's shadow, he signs on with DuPont, who showers him with facilities, sparring partners, cocaine and inspirational speeches that sound increasingly unhinged.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOXCATCHER")

CARELL: (As John Du Pont) I am leading men. I am giving them a dream. And I am giving America hope.

MONDELLO: A more astute man might realize his patron is, well, maybe, nuts. But Mark isn't the sharpest tool in the shed and just gets himself and then his brother, in deeper. Director Bennett Miller is no stranger to sports or personal eccentricity in his films, having directed both "Moneyball" and the biopic "Capote." In "Foxcatcher," he uses three superb performances to take us deep into a privileged world where the choreographed struggle of wrestling mixes toxically with the psychological struggles of familial disappointment. The film does not - or maybe cannot explain the inexplicable, the acts of a mentally ill man, but it can make the plight of those in that man's orbit anguishing.

You might expect anguish from "Rosewater," a film drawn by Jon Stewart from BBC journalist Maziar Bahari's book about surviving solitary confinement in an Iranian prison. But, while the film can be unnerving, as it details the dangers of reporting on opposition demonstrators after Iran's election...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROSEWATER")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You're going to get killed. Come on.

MONDELLO: It's also steeped in the sort of humor you'd expect from Stewart, who both wrote and directed. At one point, he even has actor Gael Garcia Bernal reenact a "Daily Show" interview the real Bahari did in Tehran with Jason Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROSEWATER")

JASON JONES: As a spy I'm just trying to figure out why your country is so terrifying.

GAEL GARCIA BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) Actually, Americans and Iranians have a lot of things in common - more than they have differences.

JONES: What do I have in common with you?

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) What is number one enemy of the United States?

JONES: Al Qaeda.

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) Al Qaeda is also the number one enemy of Iran. Al Qaeda members say that if you kill an Iranian, you go to heaven and you get 72 virgins.

JONES: Well, they won't be virgins for too long, huh?

MONDELLO: Funny to American ears, that little sketch becomes less funny when Bahari's thrown in prison four days after it airs, and has to defend himself to an interrogator.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROSEWATER")

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) I am a journalist. That's it. Nothing more.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As interrogator) Just a journalist?

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) Yes.

MONDELLO: Out comes the interrogator's computer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROSEWATER")

JONES: As a spy, I'm just trying to figure out why your country is so terrifying.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As interrogator) So can you tell me why just a journalist meet up with this American spy on the eve of the unrest?

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) He's not a spy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As interrogator) He's not a spy?

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) He's - no, it's a show.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As interrogator) It's a show?

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) A comedy show. It's stupid.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As interrogator) It's very stupid, yes.

BERNAL: (As Maziar Bahari) He's a comedian pretending to be a spy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As interrogator) So can you tell me why American pretending to be a spy have chosen to interview you?

MONDELLO: Jon Stewart took several months off from Comedy Central to make this movie last year. And, painful as that sabbatical may have been for fans, it turns out to have been worthwhile. "Rosewater" has an urgency that's all about the storytelling-smarts of its first-time writer-director. It's also got first-rate acting, the nuance about media manipulation you'd expect from Stewart and even cinematic grace notes, as when Bernal, in a burst of antic feeling, after months of isolation, dances in his cell, remembering a Leonard Cohen song his sister played for him as a child.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROSEWATER")

MONDELLO: "Rosewater" and "Foxcatcher," too, could doubtless have been anchored by other talents. Their stories needn't have reached us tears-of-a-clown style through Jon Stewart and Steve Carrell. But the involvement of those comics proves a remarkable blessing, at least partly because it connects us to their sense of discovery. What could be more astonishing, after all, than being moved by those we look to for laughter? I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.