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cultural vandal | by maryann johanson

rethinking Josh Hartnett and Ryan Reynolds…

It may sound weird, coming from someone who’s, you know, professionally — and sometimes vociferously — opinionated, but I love discovering that I’ve changed my opinion on an actor or a writer or a director. It means it’s still possible for The Movies to surprise me, and to be surprised is what I’m constantly hoping for.

Last week I posted a piece about how I’ve changed my take on Angelina Jolie in the last year or so — I couldn’t stand her bride-of-Dracula performance in Alexander in 2004, for instance, but she’s so powerful and so strong in A Mighty Heart, from earlier this year, that she moved me to tears. And as it coincidentally happens, mere days later I had a similar experience watching new films from two actors I never could have imagined I’d have a change of heart about. Hell, I’d have put quotation marks about the word actor when referring to them prior to Monday’s screenings of their new films.
First up: Josh Hartnett. In my review of Hollywood Homicide in 2003, I called him “a pretty-boy pinup with only his big brown puppy-dog eyes to recommend him.” And in 2004 I wrote this about his performance in Wicker Park:

Who decided Josh Hartnett could act? Where do they come from, these bland, boring, untalented pretty boys? Is there a factory somewhere in South America that extrudes them in flesh-colored silicone? How can we stop this?

Josh Hartnett wanders around Wicker Park like he’s been doped up with a low-dose horse tranquilizer, looking mildly bewildered, like his goldfish died, perhaps, or like he got stuck with vanilla ice cream when he really, really wanted chocolate. If only we weren’t asked to accept this as evidence of a longstanding romantic obsession …

But I actually started to feel sorry for him later, for he began to show perhaps a glimmer of promise in movies like Sin City and Lucky Number Slevin, and my entire review of 2006’s The Black Dahlia was an ode to his attempts (fruitless though I suspected they likely would be) to be seen as a Serious Actor.

But now he’s starring in Resurrecting the Champ, which opens in limited release next week, as a sports reporter who discovers that a homeless man (Samuel L. Jackson) is a once-famous boxer. The journalist’s decision to write about the boxer turns out to be a lot more trouble than he anticipated, and it sets off all sorts of dilemmas for him about his role as a journalist as well as his job as a father to the young son who idolizes him. And here’s the thing: Hartnett sells it all, beautifully.

I know: I’m as stunned as you are. But there we are.

And then we have Ryan Reynolds, who gave me the skeevy heebie-jeebies in Van Wilder and then made me laugh in 2005’s remake of The Amitville Horror:

Reynolds is badly miscast to start with — his frat-boy vacancy might work, barely, as Van Wilder, but it cannot pass muster for George Lutz, suburban husband, stepfather, and mortgage holder. And behind that empty himbo stare is a lack of talent that is shocking even in an era in which style is valued over substance (not that he’s got all that much style, though, either). He simply does not appear to know how to behave like an actual adult male human being, or even how to fake it.

Also: He wore a fat suit in Just Friends, and that’s never, ever a good idea.

But now Reynolds is starring in The Nines, opening in limited release on August 31. And he’s really quite good in it, which is even more extraordinary in that he plays three different aspects of the same character — I won’t spoil things for you, but it’s along the lines of a multiple personality kind of thing. Is Reynolds’ character the spoiled Hollywood actor we first meet, or the thoughtful and conflicted TV screenwriter, or something else entirely? Not only does Reynolds sell each incarnation convincingly, he sells the confusion and the distress that comes when he realizes he’s not sure who he is.

I’m not saying I’ve changed my opinion of those earlier performances of Hartnett’s and Reynolds’. I’m saying that I might be willing to lay the blame at the feet of someone else: a poor director, a misguided agent, a terrible scriptwriter. We shouldn’t blame actors who aren’t able to transcend bad material, because few can. But too often every film an actor had made is awful, and it’s often hard to realize that the problem isn’t with an actor — particularly without evidence to the contrary — until they do find that right script and/or director.

And then, the evidence to the contrary is a delightfully welcome.

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