When Good Actor Meets Bad Movie

When Good Actor Meets Bad Movie - Late winter is traditionally a time to celebrate great acting, as the most distinguished performances of the previous year parade before us on their long march to the Oscars. At the moment, accordingly, those of us with deadlines and airtime to fill are busy trumpeting the artistry of Colin Firth and Annette Bening, Natalie Portman and Christian Bale. But meanwhile, in the real world of day-to-day moviegoing, there are screens and seats to be filled, and genre movies — horror, action, romantic comedy, kiddie adventure — flood the multiplexes, forgoing the Academy’s consideration and hoping for a bit of yours. Many of these movies take part in another, less-heralded seasonal ritual: the spectacle of great actors appearing in bad movies.

Is that Nicole Kidman, of “The Hours” and “Rabbit Hole,” towering over Jennifer Aniston and facing off against her in a high-stakes hula-dancing contest in “Just Go With It”? Why yes it is. And yes, that is Ms. Portman cozying up to Ashton Kutcher in “No Strings Attached.” Perhaps those movies gain a little cachet from the presence of such stars, though the opposite might well be true.

In any case, it can be kind of fun to spot eminent stars in unlikely places. But there also seems to be a special class of actors — mostly men, at or beyond middle age — who specialize in such incongruity, and maybe also a particular type of movie that accommodates their willingness to shine in shabby settings.

Chief among the pleasures to be found in movies like “The Rite,” “The Eagle”and “Unknown” — to pluck examples from the current listings — is surely the chance to see the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Donald Sutherland and Liam Neeson at work. Mr. Hopkins mutters, bellows and glowers his way through a kind-of-scary tale of supernatural mumbo jumbo. Not to be outdone, Mr. Neeson does some glowering of his own and strains the tendons of his neck almost to the breaking point in a story of rage and vengeance. Mr. Sutherland, in a handful of scenes early in “The Eagle,” saunters through this would-be epic of ancient martial derring-do as a laid-back imperial Roman, a kind of mellow ancestor to the hip and horny college professor he played in “Animal House.” But this time, he gets to wear the toga.

When Good Actor Meets Bad Movie
Liam Neeson and Diane Kruger in “Unknown.”

Mr. Sutherland is one of those actors whose eagerness for work has often walked the fine line between the eclectic and the indiscriminate. He can also be seen currently in “The Mechanic,” starring Jason Statham. Among his peers, Michael Caine has slowed down a bit, and Gene Hackman has retired, but each of them, starting out in the late 1960s, enjoyed periods of near-ubiquity, fertile decades when it was hard to imagine what kind of offer they would refuse.

They had their share of leading roles, but in their fruitful maturity Mr. Hackman, Mr. Caine and Mr. Sutherland have been primarily character actors, called in to bring color and authenticity to movies that might have otherwise lacked those qualities. In “The Eagle,” for instance, Mr. Sutherland serves as a temporary foil and mentor for Channing Tatum, the blunt and brooding star, whose dour quest to restore his family honor drives the narrative. Mr. Sutherland lightens the proceedings considerably by playing someone who has already seen enough violence and glory for one lifetime — an ironist and an epicurean in a world dominated by literal-minded stoicism. His presence is a nifty little dividend, as it was in “Cold Mountain,” “Space Cowboys,” “Pride and Prejudice” and scores of other films.

Richard Foreman Jr/Summit Entertainment - Nicolas Cage in “Drive Angry 3D.”

Matt Nettheim/Focus Features - Donald Sutherland in “The Eagle.”

Egon Endrenyi/Warner Brothers Pictures - Anthony Hopkins in “The Rite.”

Dale Robinette/Paramount Pictures - Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in “No Strings Attached.”

In the case of “The Rite” and “Unknown,” Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Neeson are the protagonists, and their unapologetic star turns are likely to provoke, if not controversy exactly, then at least a measure of skepticism. Mr. Hopkins, after all, was an axiom of the Merchant-Ivory glory days, in addition to embodying Hannibal Lecter and Richard Nixon. Mr. Neeson, for his part, having played the American sexologist Alfred Kinsey and the Irish revolutionary Michael Collins and given voice to Aslan, the Messianic lion of Narnia, sits squarely at the top of his profession. What are actors of such prestige and pedigree doing in pictures like these? This is not the first time the question has come up. Mr. Neeson did the angry avenger thing two winters ago in “Taken” — quite successfully, it must be said — and Mr. Hopkins muttered and howled his way through the misbegotten “Wolfman” last year.

The suspicion is always that actors take such projects for mercenary reasons. The habit of sentimentalizing art leads us to distinguish between work undertaken for love or glory, and jobs whose prime motivation is a paycheck.

But is this really a meaningful distinction, or just an example of the cynicism that is often the flip side of our worship of movie stars? After all, while they will sometimes accept lower fees for “passion projects,” they do not make a habit, any more than the rest of us do, of working for free. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Samuel Johnson declared back in the 18th-century heyday of print, and while an army of blogheads has recently refuted this claim, at least partly, the principle of defiant professionalism, however embattled, is still sound. Acting has rarely been a reputable profession, but it is a very old one, and though its adherents may be lured by love, they — and we — measure their worth in baser currency. The world is full of amateur players, but ones we will pay to see are those for whom the play is work.

The present-day vogue for cultural nonprofessionalism has its benefits, and not only in the hothouses of do-it-yourself viral video and reality television. Independent cinema — American and foreign, mumblecore and neo-neo-realist — has been refreshed by the awkwardness and honesty that often characterize unschooled performances. The stripping away of practiced inflections and mannerisms can offer a bracing corrective to the familiar artifices of the actor’s craft. But that craft has hardly lost its appeal.

And it is what good actors bring to movies, even bad ones: discipline, conviction, the ability to help us suspend our disbelief by persuading us that they believe in what they are doing. The more preposterous the situation, the more impressive the feat of seeming to take it utterly seriously. There are other measures of excellence of course — emotional subtlety, psychological acuity, wit — but this kind of unwavering, fanatical commitment is surely a sign of greatness. You might almost say that greatness shows itself precisely in the discrepancy between the performance and the material. If that is true, then it is something like a mathematical certainty that the greatest actor in the world today is Nicolas Cage.

This hypothesis will be tested next Friday, when “Drive Angry 3D” opens in theaters, just two days ahead of the Academy Awards broadcast. Mr. Cage is no stranger to the Oscar — he was a best actor winner for “Leaving Las Vegas” and a nominee for “Adaptation” — but he has also been an action star, a comic player and, in recent years, the American cinema’s most popular and prolific purveyor of craziness.

With a handful of exceptions (Werner Herzog’s “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and Gore Verbinski’s “Weather Man” among them) critics have not smiled on Mr. Cage’s films of the past decade, which include a grab bag of hits and flops in various genres. He has anchored the juvenile action “National Treasure” franchise, and also science fiction and fantasy like “Ghost Rider,” “Knowing” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Mention must be made of “The Wicker Man,” Neil LaBute’s transcendentally awful remake of a 1970s horror movie, which has enjoyed a rich afterlife as a YouTube laughingstock.

Mr. Cage may have been driven to some of this by well-publicized financial difficulty, and some of his admirers have surely been puzzled by his choices. But it can never be said that he phones in a performance. He is more likely to scream into the telephone, or smash it to pieces, or some other sublime and unpredictable piece of business. Just doing his job, in other words. ( nytimes.com )

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