Foxcatcher

Recently I was thinking about what I would ask for if I got three wishes from a genie. It occurred to me that I could tell the genie: “I wish that I never had any problems.” But then I thought, enh, that wish is pretty vague, and vague wishes will cause you no end of trouble if you're dealing with the wrong genie. For example, what if all of “your” problems just transferred to your friends and loved ones? That would suck because then you would technically be fine but you would still feel like a total asshole all the time because everyone around you would be suffering and you would know it was all your fault. This means that you would have to follow up that first wish with a second one: “I wish I was a sociopath who couldn't empathize with other people when they were suffering.”

Then it occurred to me: why waste two wishes when you could achieve both goals merely by merely wishing to be rich? After all, once you reach Mitt Romney levels of money you can just pay someone else to take care of all of your problems for you – you have the luxury of selecting which hassles cross your desk and which are solved by underlings. Plus I think that being rich inculcates a certain type of sociopathy – it allows people to insulate themselves from the general population in a way that makes it very hard for them to understand the practical dimensions of the everyday problems that poorer people face.

However, that train of thought is also a dead end, because I've always been aware that being rich doesn't solve all your problems.

For example, let's take a look at Foxcatcher, a movie from last year about John Du Pont, the heir to one of America's biggest fortunes. Du Pont had enough money that he could buy whatever he wanted. Case in point: he decided that he liked wrestling, so he built a training camp on his estate and started sponsoring promising athletes till they came back home with the sorts of prizes he could never win on his own. Being rich enough that you can go out and buy an Olympic gold medal is a whole level above being “doing cocaine in a helicopter” rich – although he also was the sort of guy who did cocaine in helicopters.

But Du Pont could not buy a problem-free life. Yes, he has a medal in his trophy case, but he knows it isn't his. He can use his money to attract potential friends to his house, but that doesn't mean he can get rid of the loneliness that seems to have settled over his life; the wrestlers on his payroll can justify taking his money but they can't erase their gut feeling that he's a creep, a situation that might be worse than merely being by yourself in an empty mansion. And I don't even want to get started on his mother issues because the fact that you can't pay your mother to respect you or your hobbies, especially when all your money is inherited through her, is almost too obvious to be worth pointing out.

So yes, John Du Pont had as much money as a man could ever want, but it didn't seem to help him, because there is no amount of money that will fix a broken psyche, and John Du Pont's psyche was pretty broken in the time period Foxcatcher covers. He was entering his middle age, which is a time when a lot of people wonder if they are largely unnecessary in the broader scheme of things, but that must have been particularly hard for someone who was always in the shadows of his more accomplished forebearers. And that was before death and prison entered his world – two more things that generally don't care about the size of your wallet.

Now, I don't want to misrepresent Foxcatcher: it is about a lot more than money, and it is about a lot more than John Du Pont. The movie spends a lot of its run time focusing on Dave and Mark Schulz, two brothers who wrestled for Du Pont's team, and how their relationship was simultaneously competitive and loving. Furthermore, while it's telling the Schulz's story it is providing a very clear portrait of what it takes to be a champion, and what sort of demons can haunt a true competitor. There's a lot that can be said about those other aspects of the movie, or about the movie's very particular tone (which is purposefully slow, probably in an attempt to create a feeling of creeping dread, or possibly because director Bennet Miller is incapable of making a lively film.) However, I do think that what makes Foxcatcher different from other lesser dramas is that it's viewing this classically tragic story through the lens of modern American aristocracy, and that automatically makes it more fascinating to me.

For example, while it's true that the tension between Dave and Mark Schulz would be compelling even if they never met Du Pont, you have to admit that it's a lot more interesting when you throw in Du Pont as the third wheel. On their own, the Schulz's are always going to be stuck somewhere on a sliding scale between being purely supportive of each other and being completely resentful of the other's accomplishments. Throw in Du Pont as a pot stirrer and that simple diagram becomes a lot more complicated. Now they have to decide: is he trying to team us up because that's the best chance we will have for success? Is he doing that to manipulate us, or is he doing it to undermine us out of jealousy? Is he trying to stoke tension between us because he's a good coach who will use every trick in the book to motivate his charges, or is he doing it because he's a creep who doesn't understand human psychology? How much of his psycho-drama are we willing to put up with before we decide that the money isn't worth it? They wouldn't have to think about any of those things if Du Pont didn't have a nearly unlimited pocketbook, because if he couldn't afford to continually give them everything they wanted then they would just quit, but instead he can keep pulling them back in long after it would make sense for them to cut their losses.

The root of Du Pont's problem is that his wealth creates the illusion that the impossible is actually possible. His largesse takes situations that were already complicated and then makes them worse, and then that breeds resentment which is then turned back on him. This is true in small ways: having a trophy case that's full of other people's trophies is sadder than having no trophies at all, and of course cocaine can help you have fun but it's not the same thing as happiness. And it is also true in big ways: it's hard for people who are lonely to make friends because loneliness gives off an unpleasant odor; being able to pay people to live in his house allows Du Pont's to sidestep that social problem slightly, but his approach is ultimately too poisonous to work. The fact that he can't organically make friends on his own means that everyone around him has to be suspicious of him and his motives at all times, and that suspicion erects real barriers to human connection even with the people who are willing to take pity on him.

I'm well aware that I'm just spinning it this way because I'm a middle class worker drone who likes pulling the old sour grapes trick of saying “it's just as well that I'm not rich because that isn't any better.” It's not as if I'm totally in denial - I'm well aware that a lot of life's basic problems are easier when you have more options, and being rich provides you with a lot of options. But at the same time I really do believe that a tragic figure like John Du Pont exposes the true reality of richness – namely that the illusion that a person can have whatever they want can lead to just as much psychological hardship as the reality of knowing how little you have. If money could buy you a magic lamp, I'm sure John Du Pont would have bought one - but I'm not sure that even a genie could have given him the problem free life he was looking for.

Winner: Me

Foxcatcher on IMDB