Whenever I’m watching a movie featuring the Wilhelm Scream, it never fails to yank me out of the fictitious world I’ve immersed myself in—my suspension of disbelief is immediately replaced with the realization that I’m witnessing something artificial.
The same thing happens when I see certain actors appear onscreen. When Robert Duvall showed up in The Road, all I could think was, “There’s Robert Duvall,” and it totally ruined any impact his scenes might have had on me. I can watch an actor play the same character over and over (Michael Douglas and George Clooney come to mind), but if I see, say, Samuel L. Jackson wander into frame, or Andrew Garfield appear in anything other than Boy A, all I can think about is the fact that I’m watching a movie. They’re all good actors, but something about them throws me off. Is there anyone that completely derails a film for you? —Kevin
I recently pitched an Inventory on once-talented-and-diverse actors who have fallen into a rut and just play the same character over and over, essentially serving as parodies of themselves. Keith said “What, you mean ‘movie stars’?” Oh. Yeah. Right. I guess that is a lot more common than I thought. After a certain point, I tend to find really big stars distracting in a film because of the likelihood that they’ll just be going through the motions of the familiar role that made them famous. Much as I love Samuel L. Jackson’s charisma, I’m with you on him as someone who can no longer disappear into a role. (Which for anyone who saw him in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever is a serious pity.) I also get this from Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, George Clooney, Al Pacino, and Keanu Reeves, who all these days either feel like themselves in roles or themselves shouting “Look at me putting on a mask!” But the two actors who most throw me out of movies are Jim Carrey and Robin Williams. In their comic roles, they’re both so mannered and routine-bound and artificial that they tend to throw off even the most mannered, artificial movie. (A Series Of Unfortunate Events, for instance.) I recently re-watched The Truman Show, and I felt more than ever that it’s a really good film that could have been a masterpiece, if not for Jim Carrey doing the exact same gestures and grimaces and squinting and flailing he does in all his other comic roles. And while I’ve really appreciated Robin Williams’ attempts to branch out into dramatic, subdued roles in Insomnia, The Night Listener, The Final Cut, and One Hour Photo, his voice and face are just too distinctive, and some part of my brain is always saying “Hey, look at Mork terrorizing and killing people!”
Surely the modern-day champion here, even over Shouty Pacino, is Nicolas Cage. His hammier qualities enhance certain movies: Raising Arizona, Adaptation, and Honeymoon In Vegas all come to mind. I haven’t laughed harder at many things than the scene in the latter when Cage finally blows his top: “He lives in a SHACK!” But that sense that something might burst has mostly taken a back seat to moments where most of what he’s communicating is “Look! I’m Nic Cage! I’m acting.” His TV coequal, for me, is the Vincent D’Onofrio of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, who has more distracting tics than a time bomb. Also, and this is probably cheating to include, but Tyler Perry somehow manages to out-bad-act everyone else in his movies. That’s partly because many times, the other performances are due largely to Perry’s ineptitude as a director and writer. But his screen presence (I haven’t seen his stage plays, so I can’t vouch for those) seems to be constantly projecting to the audience rather than the people he’s sharing the frame with, and it can’t be discounted.
Sometimes an actor will do such an amazing job of creating a character that it’s nearly impossible to buy them as anything else. When The Incredible Hulk came out, my colleagues talked about how incredibly distracting it was to see Omar from The Wire pop up in a tiny role. Now that I’ve actually watched The Wire (sidebar: it’s good, you might want to check it out), I too will have a hard time seeing anyone from that series as anything other than the characters that made them, if not famous, then at least not completely unknown. I felt the same way when Bryan Cranston popped up in a small cameo as a sleazy politician in the recent prostitution-themed snoozefest Love Ranch. The rational adult in me understood that Cranston is a gifted, sought-after actor who portrays different characters in television and film, but some idiot part of my brain went “Oh my God, it’s Breaking Bad anti-hero Walter White! What the hell is he doing in Reno in the 1970s, and when did his hair grow back?” Needless to say, it took me out of a movie I was never that into in the first place.
Following up on Nathan’s comment, it’s very difficult for me to see James Gandolfini give perfectly fine performances in films like The Man Who Wasn’t There and In The Loop, and not think of Tony Soprano—not because he’s leaning on a familiar persona, but because his Tony Soprano performance is so incredibly iconic. Is that his fault? No, it’s mine. But I also don’t think this is a problem. I’m more than happy seeing Tony Soprano play a department-store owner or an Army general; it actually enhances my love of those movies. As I see it, there are thousands of great actors out there, but only a select few stand out as genuine personalities. I like movie stars, in other words. I don’t fault Samuel L. Jackson or Nicolas Cage for inhibiting an onscreen persona any more than I would John Wayne, Cary Grant, or Clint Eastwood. How can you, when so few actors are ever able to pull it off? Most of them would club Philip Seymour Hoffman to death to be an instantly recognizable “type.”
“Not so much an actor as a walking collection of tics”: I don’t remember who originally said it, or who they said it about, but it always stuck with me as the perfect description of Christian Slater. First rising to prominence in the post-Brat Pack 1980s, he was easy enough to avoid at first, but when he started appearing in cult-favorite movies like Heathers and True Romance, his style of “acting”—which consisted completely of a self-absorbed teenager’s bad Jack Nicholson impersonation—started showing up all over the place. By the mid-’90s, to his partial credit, he took the Nicholson-rip-off criticism seriously and swapped it out for a new, but equally annoying, set of actorly affectations, thus creating a distinction without a difference. Happily for me, the career of Christian Slater seems to be one of the few instances where the general public has been in agreement with me: His movie work took a massive nosedive in the 2000s as all of America got sick of his routine, and now he’s confined to TV shows I never watch. So he’d still derail movies for me, if he was ever in one that I saw, but thankfully, that isn’t as bit a risk as it used to be.
You know who takes me out of every movie she’s in? Drew Barrymore. And not in a good way. I know I’m not alone in finding her performance in Donnie Darko super-distracting—mostly because she’s a really bad actress. (Props to her for helping get that movie made, but just sit on the sidelines, okay?) Luckily for me, she hasn’t been in a movie that I’ve had any desire to see for quite some time, so I can just hold my copy of Charlie’s Angels tight and rest assured that it’s the only movie she’s in that I might see again. Which reminds me: I really like Sam Rockwell, but I find him distracting for reasons I can’t put my finger on—maybe it’s his delivery, which is super-consistent from film to film. But still, see Moon, people! It was pretty awesome.
I get totally distracted every time I see a cast member from Friday Night Lights appear in, well, anything. Part of it is just the way FNL shoots: Hand-held cameras lend a documentary vibe to the series, and loose, partially improvised dialogue means the actors likely infuse real-life quirks into their characters. Everything feels very real. Thus when Taylor Kitsch is gallivanting around with a (terrible) N’Awlins drawl in X Men Origins: Wolverine, or Kyle Chandler plays a poof-y, self-important leading man in King Kong, I can’t help but think “Hey, Coach Taylor is in this.” I just saw the girl who plays Tyra in the Lonestar pilot, and the minute I recognized it was her, I felt pangs of disgust at seeing her with a man who wasn’t Landry.
Recently, I saw an old picture of Will Smith from the Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air days, and felt nostalgic. I missed that Will Smith, the dorky, gawky, goofy up-and-coming young star. Back then, he reminded me of the coolest boys in school: famous, but identifiable, friendly, relaxed. But as far as I’m concerned, movie fame has reshaped Smith into a rigid plastic model of Movie Star. Those rumors of him converting to Scientology wouldn’t surprise me, just because Smith now reminds me of Tom Cruise—they’re both grinning-yet-inscrutable celebrities. This isn’t to say I dislike Smith’s movies (in fact I probably enjoyed Hancock more than most people) but due to the way he’s calcified into the role of the huge movie star who is a permanent part of the cinematic landscape, yet strangely unknowable, it’s impossible for me to watch one of his movies without thinking, the whole time, “Will Smith is fighting vampires. Will Smith is fighting aliens. Will Smith is fighting homelessness.” All this led me to wonder, was the loose-and-fun Fresh Prince Smith really what I thought he was, or was that just one of his better acting jobs?
I get distracted by the sight of any actor who’s had obvious plastic surgery on his or her face. Unless they’re playing characters who might have had a facelift or Botox or collagen injections, it’s impossible for me to take Meg Ryan, Dolly Parton, Garry Shandling, Kenny Rogers, and so on, seriously on the rare occasions that they appear in a movie or on TV. (And the reason they appear so rarely? In a lot of cases, it’s because they look like freaks now.)