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"Foxcatcher" Drowns Out Competition at Cannes

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It's just past the midway point at the festival, and pretty much no one can stop talking about Bennett Miller's haunting and complex Foxcatcher, based on the real-life murder of Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) at the hands of crackpot billionaire John Eleuthère du Pont, played by Steve Carell.

After Monday's 8:30 a.m. screening, I walked out of the Grand Théâtre Lumière not entirely convinced that the comedic actor nailed the performance -- despite just about every critic and roving member of the chattering class gushing over Carell's performance. As I learned, it was not hard to see why when you spend some time drilling further down.

Du Pont (of the chemical-company dynasty) was a scrawny, pasty, mentally unhinged billionaire who used his vast fortune in the late 1980s to fulfill a dream: open a sprawling training center for professional wrestlers, and coach them, on his huge Pennsylvania estate. His first invitee was Olympic gold medal-winner Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who, realizing he's got no life and no future post-Olympics, eventually moves into a house on du Pont's property. Mark's brother Dave (played with muted sincerity by Ruffalo, in a standout performance) eventually joins his brother on the sprawling estate only to be gunned down by du Pont.

This is Steve Carell, I swear.

This is Steve Carell, I swear.

On its face, Carell is working well outside his comfort zone with this film, but unlike, say, Bill Murray, who struggles with dramatic performances (uh, hello Hyde Park on Hudson and The Razor's Edge), Carell brings something so unusual and perplexing to the role of du Pont (aside from intense prosthetics), that it's impossible for thoughtful critics and viewers to immediately walk away from the screening with a clear notion what was just seen on screen.

Thus, I've spent a good 36 hours fighting against something common here at Cannes among journalists: group-think, where if your opinion is an outlier, you best pipe down. I've never subscribed to GT, but in this case I will admit my initial reservations about the casting choice of Carell have been, well, misguided.

The more time I spend thinking about the film (an act rarely done by the 140-character insta-critics), the more I realize that Carell was adroitly cast. So adroitly, in fact, that it took me a day and half to absorb his transformation to du Pont -- a complex and unbalanced passive-aggressive puppet master who used the sport of wrestling as a cudgel to spout über-patriotic aphorisms. Go ahead, try to picture Carell in that role.

Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.

Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.

At a press lunch this afternoon at the Carlton Hotel beach, Carell dished on the process, the film, and stated on numerous occasions that he was worried about sounding "pretentious" (he never did, quite the opposite). When asked whether signing up for the movie was a no-brainer, he was honest. "I didn't have any doubts about taking the role," he said, "but it was scary. I didn't take it to prove anything, only that it would be a challenge and interesting. It wasn't part of a master plan."

You'd think that playing an eccentric wrestling aficionado and quondam coach would at least require some knowledge of the sport. Not so for Carell. "I didn't really know anything about wrestling beforehand," he said. "Mark and Channing would go train or wrestle, so they were in it. The less I know about wrestling the better.  But apparently I got too good too quickly. Once they showed me [a wrestling move], I could do it fairly well. Our advisor, who trained under du Pont, said, 'Du Pont was never that good. So honestly, the less you know about what you're doing and the more awkward it seems the better off you'll be.'"

Awkward best describes Tatum's character, playing fellow Olympic wrestler Mark Shultz, Dave's brother. The buff actor has finally broken out of pinup-boy roles and delivers a subtle, devastating portrait of a broken man who, while at one point achieved an Olympic gold medal, can now only land a gig delivering an uninspired talk at a local school, earning a paltry $20 -- just enough for ramen noodles.

"This was a very painful experience," said Tatum at the press lunch, about working on the film. "But I think it needed to be. There were people on set who knew Dave, so there was no joking around."

In order to nail the part, Tatum and Ruffalo wrestled together. "You're basically naked," he said. "Now, I know from an outsider's perspective it looks very homosexual -- I've gotten that a lot. I'm like, 'Come on, try it out and you'll see how non-homosexual it is.' It's chess but a violent chess."

Although the festival runs until Saturday, it's looking highly likely that Foxcatcher will take home a prize here. And frankly, I can't imagine the film not being nominated for at least a Best Picture Oscar. The film is scheduled to open on November 14.