Saturday, November 27, 2010

Jake Gyllenhaal finally does a romantic comedy

Jake Gyllenhaal has made exactly 20 feature films. It feels like more than that, doesn't it?

And because this is his 20th film, I thought it was appropriate that we pause to celebrate this milestone on The Audient. Okay, that's not what I thought -- it was just a happy accident that I wanted to write about his 20th movie today, and that it happened to be his 20th.

When I saw the trailers for Love & Other Drugs, something struck me as odd. It wasn't quite the Gyllenhaal I recognized. Whoever this guy was, he was being playful and flirty, maybe engaging in a pratfall or two. There was cheery music playing. The voiceover guy sounded like he'd just popped some happy medicine, speaking of drugs.

Was Jake Gyllenhaal doing a romantic comedy?

Yes, it appeared that he was. I mean, that he is.

At that moment it struck me just how incongruous this seemed. Up until now in his career, the man has gone from one serious role to the next. There are some movies in which he doesn't crack a single smile the whole time.

Yet I'm sure he's been offered a ton of romantic comedy scripts. He's got matinee idol looks. He's still young, only just ready to turn 30 next month. And from the few times we've seen him be playful, we know he can do it.

It's just that until now, he's been holding out, presumably for artistic reasons. It seems to me that Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't find much value in romantic comedies, at least in terms of him appearing in them.

I suppose if you compared him to some other guys his age, he doesn't seem so unique. For example, the guy he gets compared to most -- Tobey Maguire -- hasn't done a romantic comedy either, to my knowledge. But at least those Spiderman movies had their share of whimsy. Even Heath Ledger, Gyllenhaal's co-star in Brokeback Mountain, who was considered a deathly (bad choice of words) serious actor in his own right, had at least two films that could loosely be characterized as romantic comedies: 10 Things I Hate About You and Casanova.

Let's take a brief look at the roles Gyllenhaal has played, listed chronologically:

1) City Slickers (1991, Ron Underwood). Who knew? He played Billy Crystal's son -- will have to go back and watch that. But even if we could count that, it would be a buddy comedy, not a romantic comedy.

2) A Dangerous Woman (1993, Stephen Gyllenhaal). Presumably a drama in which Debra Winger plays a mentally slow woman accused of theft. Appeared as a kid again, this time alongside sister Maggie, directed by father Stephen. Yep, it was a family affair.

3) Josh and S.A.M. (1993, Billy Weber). Can't find very much information about this, but it seems to be a coming-of-age drama in which he plays a side character. He's still only 13 at this point, not yet at "leading man" status.

4) Homegrown (1998, Stephen Gyllenhaal). Jump forward five years and Gyllenhaal has a tiny role in a forgettable stoner comedy-thriller -- so tiny, in fact, that he does not even appear on the first cast page on IMDB. Father Stephen directs again.

5) October Sky (1999, Joe Johnston). Okay, now we're finally getting to his real career. This is an inspirational movie (though not a very good one) about a coal miner's kid who wants to be an astronaut. It's probably how most of us know Gyllenhaal. Not deathly serious but certainly not a comedy.

6) Bubble Boy (2001, Blair Hayes). The last time Gyllenhaal made anything resembling a comedy. I say "resembling" because even though I haven't seen it, I understand that it only "resembles" humor in a very distant way.

7) Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly). Gyllenhaal plays a depressed teenager who hallucinates rabbits that instruct him to commit vandalism, and worse. One of my favorite films of all time.

8) Lovely & Amazing (2001, Nicole Holofcener). Okay, this is sort of a comedy, but again, Gyllenhaal's role is so small that he doesn't make the first page of credits on IMDB.

9) The Good Girl (2002, Miguel Arteta). If I remember correctly, he plays the teenager Jennifer Aniston is sleeping with. It's interesting that he's matched up with Aniston in one of her only movies that you wouldn't describe as a romantic comedy. Some would call this a black comedy. I would call it a misfire.

10) Highway (2002, James Cox). Another one I hadn't heard of. Involves drugs, mobsters, and a road trip to Seattle in the week before Kurt Cobain's suicide. Sounds like a laugh a minute.

11) Moonlight Mile (2002, Brad Silberling). Plays the grieving guy left behind after his fiancee is killed. I liked this movie pretty well -- I think the fact that they cut the trailer so effectively with Elton John's "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" is still part of the positive feeling I have about it. Ellen Pompeo was introduced to us in this film.

12) The Day After Tomorrow (2004, Roland Emmerich). All the laughter in this movie is unintentional.

13) Brokeback Mountain (2005, Ang Lee). A bromantic drama, not a romantic comedy.

14) Proof (2005, John Madden). Excellent adaptation of a play about a mathematical whiz (Anthony Hopkins) and his equally whizzy daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow). Gyllenhaal plays Paltrow's love interest. As she is going through her father's things after he dies, this is not a comedy.

15) Jarhead (2005, Sam Mendes). Deathly serious (there's that phrase again) war drama. One of those films that's executed well but does nothing for me.

16) Zodiac (2007, David Fincher). Plays an obsessed reporter trying to tie together the loose ends in the Zodiac killer case. Nothing romantic or comedic about this one.

17) Rendition (2007, Gavin Hood). Plays a CIA agent trying to get information from terror suspects. Haunted by lots of demons. Really like this movie.

18) Brothers (2009, Jim Sheridan). Melodramatic drama in which Gyllenhaal's character starts to fall for his brother's widow -- even though his brother was not actually killed in Iraq as assumed. Pretty over-the-top stuff here.

19) Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010, Mike Newell). This was a bit of a preview of Love and Other Drugs, in the sense that Gyllenhaal finally succumbed to another kind of Hollywood archetype -- the rakish hero who cracks wise. I haven't seen the movie but it seems like there's a fair amount of that going on. Also his first action movie, if you can believe it. Is Gyllenhaal getting soft in his "old age"?

Which brings us to Love & Other Drugs.

The movie actually received a B+ from Entertainment Weekly, which means maybe it's not as generic as it seems. In Anne Hathaway, Gyllenhaal has a co-star who also usually does "smarter" work than romantic comedies -- in fact, this movie re-matches them from Brokeback Mountain, where they played ill-fated spouses (the dude was gay, after all, and then he died -- that could be the definition of an ill-fated relationship).

But because it's Gyllenhaal's first entry into a world that has sucked in so many of his contemporaries, Love & Other Drugs feels like a bit of a letdown. It doesn't feel like the organic progression of his career -- it feels like slouching toward a paycheck. Like "Okay, I've made enough movies that mean something -- now let's settle down into my schlock period." Coupled with Prince of Persia, the trend seems all the more discouraging.

But maybe it isn't. Gyllenhaal's 21st film seems to be David O. Russell's Nailed, which may or may not be in turnaround -- IMDB gives it a 2010 release date that will obviously not transpire (Russell's The Fighter is actually coming out in a couple weeks), and wikipedia doesn't have anything more to say about it. It's described as a "politically charged romantic comedy," but it also involves Russell, he of the brilliant trifecta of Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings -- and of the terrible disaster known as I Heart Huckabees, in which his reputation for being impossible to work with was magnified after a blowup with Lily Tomlin that developed a life of its own on the internet. Who knows what to expect from this movie, but it doesn't sound very "standard" -- Jessica Biel plays a woman who comes to Washington D.C. to lobby for better health coverage after she gets a nail lodged in her head, and Gyllenhaal plays the senator who ends up falling for her. Could be interesting.

And that's all I want from Gyllenhaal, who has indeed had an interesting career so far. He may not have incredible range, seeming always to play some variation on himself, but at least he's chosen roles in films that have challenged both him and us.

And if he feels the need to squeeze in a romantic comedy here and there, well, I guess we can live with that.

Happy 20th, Jake.

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