I was re-watching a favorite comedy of mine, Bring It On, which I actually don’t mind Kirsten Dunst in, despite not enjoying her as an actress. But that also reminded me that Spider-Man 2, Drop Dead Gorgeous, and The Virgin Suicides are among my favorite movies—all starring Dunst. Are there any actors you don’t particularly enjoy, but who happen to have lead roles in your favorite movies and TV shows? —Ira
For me, there’s no better example of this than Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and The Truman Show. The latter, I think, would work better with any number of other actors in the lead; some of Carrey’s over-the-top bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed performance works for me, particularly in the early scenes, where he’s basically a parody of a person and doesn’t realize it yet. But as the film progresses, he gets more and more floppy and manic. I love the film’s concept and much of Peter Weir’s execution, particularly the finale, and the film still sticks with me as a favorite, but I think it would have been even better without Carrey, who for me has always embodied a terrified “Please love me, I’ll do anything to keep you happy!” kind of comedy. (See also Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Rob Schneider, and many more.) But Carrey surprised me in Eternal Sunshine, and not only would I not replace him in that one, I really enjoyed his performance. Into the life of every ham, a little clarity and respectability must fall. Then it’s back to the big-ass moneymakers.
This is easy: David Duchovny in The X-Files. I had the biggest crush on Fox Mulder back in the show’s heyday. I loved how Mulder was so dark and tortured, yet also was a funny, slightly pervy dork. Duchovny’s Mulder hit a sweet spot for me, in that he was a good-looking guy who played a gloomy, mysterious character at a time when gloomy, mysterious guys were rather compelling to me (i.e. high school.) But I was never piqued by David Duchovny the person, and this was way before all his sex-addiction scandals. I found Mulder intriguing, but Duchovny rather dull and smug. To this day, I could do a Google image search of Mulder and waste a few good minutes revisiting that old crush/pop-culture obsession, but I could do the same search for Duchovny and be pretty bored, even though it’s technically the same guy.
I’ve always found Tom Cruise to be a smirking wise-ass with limited acting ability, especially during his ’80s and early-’90s heyday. In just about every movie I saw him in during this time, he played basically the same role: the prick. It didn’t matter whether he was the hero (Top Gun), an up-and-coming snot-nose (The Color Of Money) or just a straight man for a more noted performance (Rain Man), he acted the same way: like he had the world by the balls and wanted everyone to know about it. Then came his performance as Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s 1989 epic Born On The Fourth Of July. It blew me away that Cruise, who until this point had just played pricks, could play a young Vietnam soldier who became disillusioned after being paralyzed in battle, battling all sorts of addictions after he came home, then rose up and become a leading protester against the war in the early ’70s. It was a performance and a film that deserved an Oscar (Stone won Best Director, but Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture; Cruise was nominated for Best Actor, but Daniel Day-Lewis won for My Left Foot), and a level of acting skill that Cruise hasn’t been able to touch since, with the possible exception of his turn as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder.
The indie-film world might lynch me for this, but I’m irritated by Catherine Keener in just about everything she’s in, but particularly for her Oscar-nominated role in Being John Malkovich. This undefined dislike might actually be a tribute to Keener’s acting ability: She plays a pretty horrible person in Malkovich, and does it so convincingly that I think it bled through (for me, anyway) to her other roles. Of course, her performance doesn’t stop me from revisiting Spike Jonze’s awesomely surreal movie every now and again. Come to think of it, I’m not a huge fan of John Cusack’s performance in the movie either. I guess it’s a testament to how great the material and direction is…
Like many of my A.V. Club colleagues, I have a visceral, bone-deep hatred of Robin Williams in his manic, flailing, “gotta love me, I’m doing shtick” mode. I find it more exhausting than exhilarating. When he’s playing dramatic roles, however, the pathological neediness and desperate need for attention that makes Williams such a migraine as a comedian and comic actor becomes a secret strength. Though it’d be a stretch to call it a dramatic performance, I liked how Williams completely disappeared inside the lead character of Popeye, to the point where he became unintelligible. He made a fine (though slightly quirky) straight man in the underrated adaptation of The World According To Garp, but my favorite Williams performances are those that twist his neediness to dark, sinister ends, like the narcissistic murderer he played in Insomnia, or The World’s Best Dad, a bleak but poignant dark comedy where Williams essentially creates a fictional, fantasy version of his terrible dead son in an attempt to win the love, approval, and validation he’s been denied as a failed author. In high-energy mode, Williams is often unbearable, but in the right part, he can be haunting and endearing.
The first time I saw Adam Sandler, doing stand-up in his pre-SNL days, he struck me as a dislikeable, self-amused creep recycling whatever bits he must have once used to break up his drunken high-school buddies in 7-Eleven parking lots. Twenty years later, my opinion stands; it took me years, and enduring his first few movie appearances, before I could steel myself to even look at him for more than a few seconds at a time. But I love Punch Drunk Love, the 2002 starring vehicle concocted for him by writer-director P.T. Anderson. It’s as much a career anomaly for Anderson as it is Sandler; it’s a small movie, and Anderson is a size freak. But he clearly loves actors and finds them fascinating, and maybe he found Sandler’s popularity so intriguing that he felt the need to deconstruct it. Punch Drunk Love isn’t an attempt by an arty, commercially unsuccessful director to venture outside his comfort zone in search of a hit, like David Gordon Green’s stoner comedies. It’s more like something developed in a lab. Anderson pinpointed the off-putting, barely acknowledged qualities Sandler always displayed—the man-child simpleton thing, his tendency to project smugness while behaving like a lout, the weirdly motivated, uncontrollably violent rage that comes bubbling up out of nowhere—and tried to create a character where they’d actually make coherent, dramatic sense. To his credit, Sandler got on Anderson’s wavelength enough that he was able to give a performance that rings emotionally true, as a socially isolated, deeply lonely person who is compelling to watch, though not exactly relatable. The movie died at the box office and alienated those few real Sandler fans who saw it. Which probably helps explain why the next time Sandler had a chance to be in a really good movie, when he became attached to George Wing’s sweet, clever script for what was turned into 50 First Dates, he made sure that the finished product included a funny-accent role for Rob Schneider, and plenty of comically deployed walrus vomit.
Certain actors always evoke an intense reaction. Whether that reaction is positive or negative is a toss-up, but it’s rare that their presence in a movie goes unnoticed. Sometimes when Cameron Diaz appears, I instantly hurl a brick at whatever movie happens to be terrorizing my television at that particular moment. She can not only add insult to injury in a bad rom-com, she can also flounder in an otherwise-interesting drama as well. But a strange thing happens when she ventures outside conventional roles: She abandons ego and actually brings a lot to the table in movies such as Being John Malkovich and Vanilla Sky. While the former might be the performance most people consider her best, her performance in the fascinating, though problematic, remake of Abre Los Ojos might be her most compelling. In both cases, she’s fearless about being unlikeable, psychotic, and downright unsettling. If she simply sucked as an actor, it would be easier to ignore horrible films like What Happens In Vegas. (Look under Heigl, Katherine, for examples of this type of career.) What’s most frustrating about watching Diaz in the majority of her films is knowing how much she could be bringing to the screen if only she played to her strengths more often.
I’ve never liked Jake Gyllenhaal. At all. A lot of this has to do with my reaction against Donnie Darko, which came out while I was in high school. While all the other kids were busy having their minds blown by that, and listening to that Tears For Fears song in their cars, I was combing through Rotten Tomatoes message boards trying to figure out what really happened to Aunt Ruth in Mulholland Dr. But beyond Gyllenhaal’s connection to my own adolescent delusions of pretension, I just find him limp. He’s never good as a hero (Day After Tomorrow, Prince of Persia, Source Code), and he’s too cutesy-poo to be convincing as a romantic lead. (He even unbalances Brokeback Mountain for me—soft, honey-voiced, twinkly-eyed piece of cowboy-bait that he is.) But Zodiac is the exception. I skipped Fincher’s definitive capital-M Masterpiece when it came to theatres, precisely because of Gyllenhaal’s name on the marquee, but have since come to greatly admire it, after multiple viewings on DVD. Everything I find grating about Gyllenhaal—how adorable he is, his ineffectuality at convincingly driving a narrative forward—works in Zodiac. Nobody could have played such a hyperbolically jejune character as Robert Graysmith better than Gyllenhaal, who always has the ability to look like he was just freshly pitched from the turnip truck. And his lack of believability as anything like a motion-picture hero greatly services the film, which draws its power from stasis, hopelessness, and lack of resolution, which are about the only things Jake Gyllenhaal can credibly shoulder.
I wouldn’t say I actively hate Anna Paquin or anything, but she’s rarely been the highlight of any of her films for me, and her work on True Blood has pushed me over into the “don’t like” column on her generally. But I recently saw Kenneth Lonergan’s long-shelved, remarkable Margaret, and I thought she was revelatory there, playing a girl on the cusp of adulthood and just starting to figure out both how the world works and how little it ultimately cares about her when all is said and done. There are several long, essentially melodramatic scenes that could feel too stagey or too whiny, but Paquin perfectly negotiates the trick of how to believably play an overwrought adolescent without tipping over into unbelievable histrionics or self-parody. I know the response to Margaret has been decidedly divided, and I know it will probably disappear for all time after its brief theatrical run, but Paquin’s performance needs to be seen.
This isn’t a movie or a TV show, but we never get any videogame questions, so screw it: I’ll go with Jack Black in Brütal Legend. You’d think that a game about heavy metal would be the type of project in which Jack Black, who plays the hero, would really Jack Black it up. Yet in the context of a profane, violent, rapturously over-the-top adventure, Black actually has to pull back on his usual noise in order to stand out. Don’t get me wrong, Black’s character—roadie Eddie Riggs—is a bona fide metalhead, yet he’s also calmer and sweeter than the exaggerated caricatures of heavy-metal icons that surround him in the game’s fantasy world. With Black no longer able to lean on the frenetic, desperate mugging that characterized his work at the peak of his fame, his charm and contagious, youthful enthusiasm shine through. Riggs is a lovable smartass whom Black brings to life with more humor and emotional nuance than anyone could have expected. As a result, I’ve looked at Black with newfound appreciation since playing Brütal Legend. For me, it’s the work in which Black rehabilitates his real-life persona by way of a musclebound virtual alter ego.
I don’t think I’m the only person who finds Renée Zellweger more or less insufferable in most contexts—the squinting! the pouting! the penchant for middlebrow Oscar-bait like Cold Mountain and Cinderella Man! But as irritating as she so often is, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the title role in Bridget Jones’s Diary. In my humble opinion, it’s the best romantic comedy of the last 20 years, and much of the credit belongs to Zellweger. (No, the sequel wasn’t so great, but she still was.) Yes, Zellweger gained some weight to play Bridget, but her transformation into a boozy British singleton was more profound than that. As I watch, I almost forget who I’m watching, which is a good thing.
I’ll admit I haven’t kept up with the recent additions to Matthew McConaughey’s oeuvre, but it seemed unlikely that movies like Failure to Launch and Ghosts Of Girlfriends Past would reverse his penchant for sleepwalking through roles with a glib, generally shit-eating air. That changed ever so slightly with last year’s The Lincoln Lawyer, and fell firmly into place with Killer Joe, the bloody, brilliant new William Friedkin film in which Matty Mac plays a sleazebag cop who moonlights as an assassin for hire. It isn’t that McConaughey is any less self-satisfied in the roles, but for once, that impenetrable self-assurance is part of the character, whose amoral egocentrism allows him to justify satiating any appetite, no matter how repugnant. He’s spent a long time denying it, but there’s no question that McConaughey excels at playing assholes, a lesson I hope he holds fast to in future.
I have very little tolerance for Sarah Jessica Parker. I don’t really know where it went wrong between us, but since I loved her when she was on Square Pegs, I’m going to perform a bit of self-analysis and presume it has something to do with the personal betrayal I felt when she stopped looking somewhat nerd-like and got all glammed up. As a result, I’ve never had any particular love for the Sex And The City movies (let alone the series), nor anything else in which she’s played a lead role. I must begrudgingly admit, however, that Parker is pretty good as part of the ensemble of two of my favorite films. In L.A. Story, she’s positively glowing as SanDeE*, the vacuous blonde who roller-skates her way into Steve Martin’s heart, and in Ed Wood, she takes the role of Ed Wood’s longsuffering girlfriend, and plays the part of an inconsiderate bitch to perfection. Otherwise, though, she drives me up the freaking wall.