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Steve Carell wrestles with greatness in ‘Foxcatcher’

At first blush, Steve Carell may seem an odd choice to portray John du Pont in the dark, true-crime drama “Foxcatcher,” but the casting is surprisingly fitting.

If the millionaire wrestling enthusiast hadn’t already existed, he sounds like someone who would have been invented by “The Office’s” Michael Scott — possibly as a nemesis for his secret agent alter ego, Michael Scarn.

In “Foxcatcher,” opening Friday at Suncoast and Town Square, Carell’s du Pont is a self-described patriot, world explorer, ornithologist, philanthropist, philatelist and former pentathlete.

When Olympic wrestling gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is first helicoptered to du Pont’s palatial estate, he’s told du Pont would have piloted that chopper but he was busy “providing tactical support” for local police.

Later in their partnership, after Schultz and du Pont have created a respected training academy, the middle-aged benefactor finances a wrestling tournament for himself to enter and win. From the looks of things, it’s hard to tell whether du Pont was trying to pin his poor opponent or have relations with him.

It’s easy to see how Schultz could have fallen under du Pont’s sway. Schultz had always lived in the shadow of David (Mark Ruffalo), his older brother and fellow wrestler. Schultz is a gold medalist, just like David, but that was at the boycotted 1984 Olympics where they were handing Americans gold medals the way Oprah used to give out cars. (“You get a gold medal! And YOU get a gold medal!”)

When we meet Schultz in 1987, he’s speaking to school assemblies for $20 a pop and dining on ramen noodles with hot sauce in his dumpy apartment. Du Pont puts him up in a lush chalet on the grounds of his estate and pays him a yearly stipend of $25,000. (Du Pont told Schultz to name his price, and that was the highest number he could name.)

Before long, though, despite being handed a first-rate training facility, Schultz descends into a life of booze, cocaine and, worst of all, frosted tips.

And it’s all enabled by du Pont.

He’s a terrific character, and he’s masterfully brought to life by Carell, who holds his prosthetic nose high in the air and speaks in a halting way as though he’d been abusing the tranquilizers intended for his mother’s (Vanessa Redgrave) prized horses.

One of the first questions David asks his little brother is what du Pont is getting out of this arrangement. And it’s a valid question. It’s tough to tell whether du Pont is seeking companionship, praise he’ll never get from his mother, or just wants to wear all that sweet Team Foxcatcher gear.

At one point, du Pont tells Schultz to stop calling him sir.

“I consider us friends, and most of my friends call me Eagle or Golden Eagle,” he says, straight-faced. “So either of those will work.”

It would be hilarious if it weren’t leading to such a catastrophic ending.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.

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