Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Birthday Take: Steve Carell in "Foxcatcher" (2014)

Scene from Foxcatcher
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Steve Carell
Born: August 16, 1962 (55 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor (nominated) for Foxcatcher as John du Pont

The Take

There is an odd trend that The Academy loves to award, which is a comedian playing a serious role. It's especially odd given that they're both forms of acting, but apparently it's tough to imagine someone who makes us laugh also make us cry. There's been great examples of it throughout history, though a more recent one is also pretty odd. Foxcatcher almost seemed to be billed as the movie that would get Steve Carell his Oscar nomination. It had all of the elements of that type of movie. He acts menacing, destroys some stuff in a moment of anger, and invests himself deeply into a quiet and frustrated character. He is an insular character who needs a great actor to bring that to life. The only question really is if Carell did the job in an effective manner.

To some, the nose prosthetic was a bit too distracting in ways that Nicole Kidman in The Hours was able to overcome. Beyond that, he was playing a real life person who captured the dourness of a post-Olympic life for an athlete. He could retire to giving inspirational speeches, but what about his own sanity? It was tough to suggest that Carell was the real star of the movie when Channing Tatum's frustrated and physical role more captured the conflicts of an athlete who is trying to prove himself. It's one of the few nominations from Foxcatcher that still feels like it was robbed. Then again, it's tough to also see why Carell got a nomination for this film - which is still honestly one of the better sports movies in recent years. He plays well off of everyone, but is it exemplary of his work?

For what it's worth, Carell is an actor who seems to have a dignity even during his more shameless performances. He is what makes The 40-Year-Old Virgin work so well. His silliness masks a deeper insecurity that makes it hard for him to be intimate. It's what he brings generally to his roles while still managing to be likable. He may have faded in stature over time, but he still occasionally can make a movie work. In some ways, Foxcatcher was labeled as the next step for him. It would be his dramatic turn where he would then go on to roles that would surprise us. In some ways, he has - just not successfully as is the case with Freeheld. It's too soon after this movie to officially judge how his dramatic career has been, but it would be odd if he's remembered for Foxcatcher.

The irony holds that actors often don't win Oscars for their best work. It's all a statistics game, and I'm overall happy to see Carell with an Oscar nomination to his credit. With that said, one has to wonder what he brings to the role that is necessarily exciting or fresh. He is a bit disturbing and captures a cold and absent frustration. Yet he is very much a distracting figure who is trying to feel that way. His speeches are great and his story is sad, but what does he really have that elevates him to Oscar worthy material? I admit that I had a long running belief that Foxcatcher would win Best Picture. That was, of course, before that Oscar season started. I even really like the film in hindsight. However, I think that this will end up being one of those nominations that people wonder why that happened. Again, I think that Tatum was more deserving than Carell or Mark Ruffallo, but I guess he has his own hurdles to jump over to finally get that acceptance. Maybe Logan Lucky will do the trick (ha!).

Of course, one cannot hold out on Bennett Miller, who directed the film. He has a fantastic body of work, and I can't fault anyone for recognizing his skills. He often has great ensembles and elevates familiar actors in intriguing ways. Never forget that it's because of him that Jonah Hill got his first Best Supporting Actor nomination - which still feels odd considering that the right director makes him great but he's generally okay as an actor. With that said, Carell shows promise and I hope that he returns to the Oscars circle one of these days with a movie that challenges him even more. I don't know what that will be, but it will have to be something more shocking and lively than Foxcatcher

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