Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Instead of looking to the multiplex for inspiration, we honor James Gandolfini by singling out our favorite of the late actor’s performances.
Where The Wild Things Are (2009)
A lot of James Gandolfini’s power as an actor came from his physicality. He was a big man, a hulk who could use his mighty stature as a tool for both intimidation and unlikely comedy. (For the latter, see In The Loop—or, for that matter, The Sopranos, which was often funnier than any of the sitcoms on the air during its six-season run.) So memorable was Gandolfini as a corporeal presence that it feels pretty strange to admit that my favorite of his performances is the one that relies on nothing but his voice. In Spike Jonze’s daringly downbeat Where The Wild Things Are, the actor lends his distinct Jersey cadence to Carol, the most multi-dimensional of the depressive monsters who befriend troubled, marooned runaway Max. These wild things are less characters than walking, talking projections of the young boy’s psyche, so it’s doubly impressive that Gandolfini is able to invest his animatronic avatar with such personality, such soul. It’s his most nakedly vulnerable work—which is funny since it’s also, technically speaking, his least naked work.
I could go on and on about Where The Wild Things Are, a deeply strange act of adaptation, and—to these (moist) eyes, anyway—one of the most undervalued American movies of the last decade or so. What’s radical about it is the way Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers treat a beloved children’s classic as the mere jumping-off point for a film about childhood—a largely abstract broken-home drama, in which a kid copes with his parents’ divorce by creating a storybook safe-space to sort out his issues. As voiced by Gandolfini, Carol is a loose analogue for both Max himself and his absent, potentially violent father. That’s what makes the boy’s inevitable departure from the island so devastating: In some respects, he’s letting go of both his need for a “complete” family and a small piece of himself. When Gandolfini unleashes that final, sorrowful howl, the movie quakes with feeling. It’s a bellow that speaks louder than words—even the often-flavorful ones Gandolfini so masterly delivered over the course of his cut-short career.
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