Not long ago, I wrote an article about a distinctive group of actors with the unique ability to singlehandedly ruin a promising film, on account of their jarringly awkward performances. Far from disagreeing with my point-of-view, the sheer number of responses suggested that I had merely scratched the surface of a much more bigger problem. And that, although my focus had been on performers with a painfully incongruous screen-presence, the opposite could be just as annoying.
These are the artistes who, for whatever reason, have managed to cultivate a lucrative career out of simply being themselves on film. We’ve all been guilty of cutting a few corners at work. Protesting that we really did send that email, it must have just got caught up in the spam blocker. Turning up late and blaming it on an activated passenger alarm on the Tube. Fixing interest rates and seeing thousands of people in danger of losing their homes. All victimless crimes, I’m sure you’ll agree. However, when an actor starts getting lazy, everybody suffers.
Because, for every young ingénue who talks about diversity and challenge in selecting their roles, there’s a generation of more established talent who are more than content to rock up and churn out the same old bullshit, bank a few million dollars, and retreat to a Cannes-bound yacht until the agents come calling again.
The worst of it, is that some of them have an abundance of ability, but seem perfectly happy to squander it on an easy gig. It doesn’t seem to matter who, or what, they’re supposed to be playing, because they’ve only got one setting. I’m sure there are hundreds of examples out there, but for now, let’s round up the Usual Suspects.
Back before he hit the big time, Ben popped up in episode of Friends, shortly after Ross and Rachel broke up. Turning up on the arm of the ex-Central Perk waitress, Stiller played a man with clear anger management issues. The joke, such as it was, was that only Ross could see the problem, while everyone else dismissed his concern as thinly-veiled jealousy. Over the course of twenty minutes, Ben Stiller shouted at a duck and a chicken and then yelled at some old people sitting in the wrong theatre seats. Real laugh-a-minute stuff. And yet, somehow, this shocking and almost surreally thin characterization effectively provided the template for the next fifteen years of Stiller’s career. Whether he’s playing Mr Furious in the woefully misjudged superhero comedy Mystery Men, or cameoing as himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm or Extras, he’s always the same tightly-wound, short-tempered turd. To paraphrase an old saying; if it walks like a prick, and talks like a prick…
Many will argue that an incredible artist of Nicholson’s calibre has no place on a list of one-note performers. It only takes a moment to consider his extraordinary career and the wildly varied roles he’s taken on. But there’s a catch. Many actors try to make themselves something of a blank slate, onto which they can draw all manner of characters. Jack, on the other hand, has the kind of magnetic presence that could suck the fillings right out of your mouth. That’s fine when he’s sitting on the front row of the Kodak theatre, for whoever’s hosting the Oscars to polish his helmet, but not when he’s supposed to be suspending our disbelief with a deftly drawn character. To put it simply, Jack’s a big red sock. Throw him in the wash, even at 30 degrees, and everything’s going to come out the same colour.
With those iconic eyebrows raised so high that they threaten to blend into his comb-over, Jack Nicholson is rarely anything but himself. Last week, I happened to catch half an hour of The Shining on TV, starting with the scene in the deserted bar where Jack is talking to the ghostly bartender and sinking an imaginary Scotch. Even though I must have watched that film ten times, I’d never noticed just how awful Nicholson’s performance was. The rolling eyes, the thin-lipped sneer, and the ODDLY shifting VOLUME of HIS speech – it’s like a masterclass in self-indulgent overacting. Jack doesn’t play characters, he just decides how much like himself he wants to be, and takes it from there. Even in critically acclaimed Oscar bait like The Pledge and About Schmidt, he’s still unmistakably Jack Nicholson; he’s just speaking more quietly and wearing cheaper shoes.
To put it simply, Jack’s a big red sock. Throw him in the wash, even at 30 degrees, and everything’s going to come out the same colour.
Take a look at Jennifer Aniston’s page on IMDB. Go on, I dare you. There’s no denying that she’s been prolific in the years since Gunther last steamed her soy latte. However, look more closely at the films in question, and you’ll see that diversity isn’t exactly her strong-point. He’s Just Not That Into You, Rumor Has It, The Switch, The Bounty Hunter, Just Go With It, Please Make It Stop, Losing The Will. Alright, I may have imagined the last couple. Even so, her portfolio represents an endless procession of films based on the assumption that women will sit through anything, as long it features Jennifer playing some variation of her real-life lovelorn persona. Will she ever find the right man? Will she be able to juggle her career and her love-life? And how does she keep her hair so silky?
Last year she finally stretched herself and played an aggressively slutty employer in Horrible Bosses, so perhaps we might get to see her admittedly impressive comic timing put to better use in future. She’s currently filming We’re The Millers, which sees her tackling the role of a ‘dowdy prostitute’. So far, so promising - just don’t be too disappointed if a pair of Capri pants and a hair scrunchie are all that pass for characterisation.
Back in 1976, uber-producer and master of hyperbole Dino De Laurentiis promised that his forthcoming remake of King Kong would showcase a life-size animatronic version of the eponymous beast. And although there was no denying that Carlo Rambaldi’s mechanical marvel was indeed an imposing creation, the fucking thing didn’t actually work. Almost two million dollars had been spent on a 40-foot gorilla that was incapable of doing anything convincingly. So it just stood there in a handful of wide-shots, looking mildly aggressive but otherwise entirely useless. Let me know when the analogy begins to sink in.
Vinnie’s official website, which I’m charitably assuming is a sophisticated pastiche of web 1.0 design conventions, features the song lyrics “They're gonna put me in the movies, there gonna make a big star out of me, there gonna put me in the movies and all I have to do is act naturally." Fucking awful grammar aside, the fact that this is how Vinnie perceives his ‘acting’ career says a great deal about what to expect when the bullet-headed ball-twister lumbers onto the screen. There’s no denying Vinnie loves his Hollywood lifestyle, but to everyone else, it’s a bit of an insult. Reveling in his bewildering status as a ‘movie star’, Vinnie’s barely-concealed glee at his undeserved success is about as heartwarming as watching Michael Carroll spend £400k on a caravan full of blow and a dozen quad-bikes. Need a vaguely threatening thug to say nothing and carry a big weapon? Get Vinnie on the dog and bone; especially if you’re concerned that Jason Statham might bring too much nuanced sophistication to the part.
Need another reason to be depressed about the state of the world? Well, you’re in luck – Adam Sandler has starred in twelve films that have each made over $100 million at the US box office. Twelve. That’s over a billion dollars, for acting like an adenoidal man-child with a short fuse and a lop-sided face that could raise money for Bell’s Palsy research. Sandler’s shtick is so formulaic, it doesn’t even change when he plays a woman, as evidenced by the recent Jack & Jill – a film so bad that Skynet considered sending an assassin back in time to put a bullet in the Lumières.
For thousands of years, philosophers have speculated about the true nature of hell, and what punishment damned souls might be forced to endure for the rest of eternity. A wasted effort if you ask me, since it’s quite clear that hell is actually a multiplex with broken air-conditioning, that only shows Adam Sandler movies. I’m an avowed atheist, but I can promise you that I’ll be accepting Jesus as my lord and savior when the big day comes, just so I don’t wind up having to sit through a double-bill of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and Little Nicky.
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