Friday, September 18, 2009

Can We Cast Celebrities Anymore?

What's this? I'm not writing about games? Sorry to disappoint, but something's been percolating lately.

Pankin's recent series on comedy got me thinking about the movie Funny People. When I first saw Judd Apatow's latest, I was struck by the meta aspects of the film. It's a movie about a past-his-prime comedian played by a past-his-prime comedian. It's directed by said comedian's former roommate who then puts his (the director's) wife and kids in the flick. I'm not trying to point fingers and cry "Nepotism!" I recognize that Film is one of those industries where it's Who You Know that matters, and sometimes Who You Know happens to be your spouse/father/roommate. It's the focus on Adam Sandler and the convergence of his real and fictional careers that caught my attention. The movie was built around him and supported by the audience's prior knowledge.

With media and celebrity knowledge at its most saturated, is this convergence of art and celebrity a boon to movie-making or an identifiable yet unavoidable obstacle?

A quasi-recent New York Times article looked at declining box office returns for megastar vehicles and attempts to make sense of the downturn. Remember The Taking of Pelham 123 starring Denzel Washington and John Travolta? Neither do I. And whatever happened to Public Enemies, a Michael Mann joint expected to soar on the coattails of Christian Bale and Johnny Depp? These are just some of the only big-name flops in a summer whose biggest movies featured talking robots, intrepid septagenarians, and half-breed royalty (examples from NYT article). Various reasons are explored, including the immensity of the Web and its never-ending stream of information.

I believe that the cult of celebrity is doing more than monetary harm to these movies. We are trapped in an inescapable media cycle, determined to tell us the whowhatwhywherewhen of every mildly famous person. For example, I'm regularly inundated with information about Brad Pitt: how many adoptive children he has, whether or not he's married yet (he's not), what it's like to make out with a woman who once thought dating Billy Bob Thornton was a good idea. And I don't go seeking this stuff out. He's on magazine covers. He's doing press junkets. And he's a fine actor, but it took Oscar-winning CGI to separate get Brad Pitt far enough away from Brad Pitt to net him an Oscar nod.

Also cashing in on the draw of its stars are comeback vehicles like Iron Man and The Wrestler. Both took stars who'd really fallen out of the limelight (and I mean fallen) and told stories about men finding their way back to the top. I enjoyed each of these movies, but I couldn't ignore the context swirling around each lead. Perhaps that's the point. It's often the impetus behind these casting decisions. But then I begin to wonder if we're seeing truly three-dimensional characters or just silver screen allegories for each actor's celebrity.

Some seem able to rise to this challenge. However, this may just as much as a result of proper privacy management as actual talent. Meryl Streep reinvents herself regularly, dancing like an ABBA-loving hippie one minute and donning a strict nun's habit the next. Daniel Day Lewis can win an Oscar without starring in a biopic (not an easy feat these days), but I don't much about him. And now he's going to be in a movie musical? That's ballsy.

The recent adaptation of Revolutionary Road takes the casting of celebrity to a new level. By reuniting the stars of James Cameron's still-revered Titantic, director Sam Mendes closes the distance between the audience and these characters from the 50s. We don't need a flabby flashback to explain how the couple got together; the movie's about their demise. Furthermore, while Kate Winslett's aged gracefully (I hear she's seducing Nazis now), Leonardo diCaprio still retians some of that boyish "Let's have sex in a car on a boat" charm. His character Frank Wheeler is a boy hapharzardly playing at being a man, and April Wheeler (Winslett) is a woman trapped by her quaint suburban life. This is the exact opposite of the wide-eyed Innamorati of Titanic.

And then there's Tom Cruise, whose career nearly collapsed under his own insanity. Before Valkyrie, his last marquee role was in the forgettable Mission: Impossible 3. Here Cruise served mostly as a vehicle for the audience to witness Philip Seymour Hoffman be evil, a vastly underwhelming role considering the schizophrenic media blitz that preceded it. But, wrapped in a fat suit and buried in latex, Cruise soared as a morally-bankrupt movie exec, lampooning the industry that turned a reliable star into an Oprah-frightening loon.

So can movie stars make movies anymore? I suppose so. People seemed to enjoy Brad Pitt in Inglorious Basterds. But in age where I can follow a celebrity's Twitter, write on their Facebook wall, and order their autobiography off Amazon all on my smartphone during the movie, we may see more stars test their character-acting chops. Meanwhile, we can all go watch a bunch of no-names tear it up in The Hurt Locker.