Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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One More and We Take it Back: Kevin Spacey

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 16, 2008

“When did you become so…joyless?”

I’ve seen a fair number of ads for this new movie 21, and I gotta say, it looks ridiculous. I mean, I guess nerds don’t get too many thrillers made about ’em these days, so one made about MIT students is probably something I should be semi-grateful for. But, even aside from the fact this it’s an almost all-white cast in a movie based on a story about Asian college students, and that two of those white people are ultimate “how did they become famous, exactly?”star-fakers, it just seems like a lot of nonsense. Overdramatic, sensationalized hogwash about a story that probably won’t even end interestingly–always the problem of having a movie based on a true story.

Unsurprisingly, this movie also stars Kevin Spacey. Now, there was a time when that casting choice would make almost every movie a must-see–namely, the turn of the millenium, a time when Spacey was virtually untouchabel. He had key roles in four of my then-favorite movies of the 90s (Se7en, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential and American Beauty), a couple of deserved cult favorites (Glengarry Glen Ross, Swimming With Sharks), a couple of above average blockbusters (A Time to Kill, The Negotiator) and even a Christmas perrenial (The Ref). For almost a whole decade, the man could do no wrong, and he even had a couple of Oscars to show for it. He looked well on his way to being one of the premier actors of his generation–a stunning mix of Jack Lemmon, Tom Hanks and Robert Mitchum.

And then he stopped making good movies.  It would have been unthinkable after he took home Academy Award #2 for American Beauty that not only would the man go nine years without another Oscar nomination, he wouldn’t even appear in a single particularly critically acclaimed or commercially successful movie. His 21st century role choices were a combination of crass paycheck decisions (K-Pax, Fred Claus), portentious, overcooked dramas (The Life of David Gale, The United States of Leland), bizarre personal projects (Beyond the Sea, The Big Kahuna) and movies you’ve never heard of (Ordinary Decent Criminal, Edison Force). The one thing that they all have in common is that no one seemed to like them very much.

So what happened? Well, a post-Oscar slump isn’t all that irregular an occurence–actors get confused, afraid of not living up to expectaitons, afraid of being typecast, and afraid of being pigeonholed, leading to them often selecting particularly improbable or ill-advised rules to avoid confirming these fears by confounding nearl everyone. But also, it didn’t Kevin Spacey had difficulty establishing a sort of acting niche for himself–he was too powerful a presence (and after American Beauty, too famous an actor) to be relegated to supporting roles, but he didn’t have that classic leading man feel either. For a while, it was tough to see where he would fit into an average film project.

The one semi-bright spot on this heavily blemished recent resume, though? His appearance in Superman Returns. Not a particularly great movie, not a particulary great role, not even a particularly great performance, but since it’s become obvious that he doesn’t have that sort of marquee name potential he was seemingly trying to establish at first, he should be looking to take more supporting roles like this as the antagonist in a high-profile blockbuster. They keep his name and face visible enough for people not to forget who he is, while simultaneously adding much-needed cred and class to a super-commercial product and buying him time before he can pull of a legitimate comeback. Didn’t hurt that Lex Luthor was a plum role and that Spacey worked with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects, both’s breakout effort. Once again, not a particularly noteworthy turn, but one that was enough to remind you of how much you’ve missed Spacey this last decade, and one that made you wonder why more decent big movies aren’t giving him a call.

Does Quentin Tarantino have a part for Spacey in his upcoming erotic drama? Hey, he was in Henry & June a while back, he’s probably got the experience. Anything that doesn’t involve him playing a teacher, professor or educator of any type, please.

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