Saturday, October 4, 2014

Joel Edgerton plays dress-up

I've had reason to take an interest in the career of Joel Edgerton over the years.

I first came across him as the star of the film Kinky Boots, which was then the latest in a long line of movies -- spawned by the success of The Full Monty -- about British underdogs involved in unusual pursuits. I found him pretty milquetoast and ineffectual in the role -- "wet," as my wife would say.

So I was a little surprised when he reemerged a couple years later as someone more masculine and formidable, in movies like Animal Kingdom and Warrior. I liked this new incarnation of the man, and found myself becoming one of his fans. Meanwhile, he was catching the eye of Hollywood and starting to become a true leading man.

Then in the past few years I have known him as a collaborator of my friend Matthew Saville, who is married to one of my wife's oldest friends and who directed the feature Noise, which played at Sundance in 2007. A huge fan of Noise, Edgerton sought out Matt to direct his own script, which later got the title Felony and came to star Tom Wilkinson and Jai Courtney along with Edgerton. (I plan to pimp Felony a bit more when it gets its U.S. release a couple weeks from now.)

The latest iteration of Mr. Edgerton, however, goes back to having me a little puzzled again.

Just this week I watched the trailer for Exodus: Gods and Kings, at first thinking it was the new movie from Alex Proyas. That's actually Gods of Egypt and isn't due until 2016. However, the confusion isn't surprising as not only is the title similar, but Exodus also takes place in Egypt, dramatizing the famous Biblical story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt. Although I was generally impressed by the trailer, realizing it was directed by Ridley Scott blunted some of my enthusiasm.

Further blunting it was seeing Joel Edgerton as the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II.

It was at that moment that I realized: While I like Joel Edgerton a lot, not for a minute do I think he has any range. And certainly not the kind necessary to credibly play a pharaoh.

Also, isn't he a bit ... I don't know ... white?

I guess your average Egyptian is not particularly dark-skinned. But Joel Edgerton might be, like, the whitest guy I've ever seen. I think that's what I was responding to when I shrank away from his performance in Kinky Boots and called it "milquetoast." That word is of course based on a fictional character named Caspar Milquetoast, who bore the characteristics of weakness, timidity and blandness. The creation of his name, however, has to do with the image of a piece of toast dipped in milk -- something not only white, but something that easily loses its substance through dissolution.

I should back up a step and remind you that I don't see Joel Edgerton like this anymore. In fact, he's rather virile, I think. But he's still essentially a white guy, not a guy I can easily imagine playing an Egyptian.

But it's not just his skin color or his perceived skin color that makes me doubt his fitness for this role. It's that Edgerton has consistently been cast in very realistic-type roles -- if not always modern, then at least very straight-laced. The only time he has even remotely strayed from the realm of realism is when he played a character in The Great Gatsby, but the only reason that's not quite as realistic is because the film's director (Baz Luhrmann) would almost never be thought of as confining himself to realism. Edgerton's performance within that fanciful film is pretty grounded, though.

Edgerton did provide the voice of the villain in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, but I'm not counting that. Voice work is an entirely different animal.

So exactly how, one wonders, did he get cast in Scott's film, playing opposite a much more straightforward instance of casting in Christian Bale as Moses? It's hard to say for sure, but I'm guessing he had the right squinty eyes for the part. He does sort of look like how I imagine that pharaoh looked.

But can he pull off the role? Can he "go big"? Either as big as the film undoubtedly requires, or as big as Bale will undoubtedly go?

It's hard to say, but I will say this: Joel Edgerton has reinvented himself before. There's nothing to say that he can't do it again, and I think it's certainly fair to let him try.

Because one thing I've learned from talking to Matt about his experiences with Edgerton is that Edgerton is one of the hardest workers he's ever met. He's worked hard to have a busy career where he has been capable of changing people's minds about what he can do. And it's not just the acting we're talking about here -- the man has written several scripts as well. I can't imagine it will be long before he directs his own movie, rather than just leaving that to his brother Nash (another hyphenate, one of the oddest you are likely to find: director-stuntman).

As for Exodus itself, it figures to have state-of-the-art special effects, and since it's from Ridley Scott, it will likely be emotionally cold. I do know that it's excellent fodder for a big-budget Hollywood movie, and I really enjoyed the treatment of this subject matter in Dreamworks' film The Prince of Egypt.

So, we'll just have to see I guess. And we'll also have to see what incarnation Joel Edgerton has in store for us next.

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