There’s a scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin where characters are watching The Bourne Identity and Paul Rudd’s character states…
“Y’know, I always thought that Matt Damon was like a Streisand, but he’s rocking the shit in this one!”
It’s not a classic or even a classy quote, but it got me thinking about movie performances that changed my mind about a performer.
Adam Sandler – Punch-Drunk Love
Going into Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, I only knew Sandler for playing whiny-voiced man-children in a series of comedies that made millions despite often being savaged by critics.
I liked him well enough in Happy Gilmore, I’ll be honest, but seeing him as Barry in Punch-Drunk Love was a real revelation.
The whiny voices are replaced with a method mumble, a shyness and internalised agony that occasionally breaks free in shocking acts of violence, but always underscored with a deep sensitivity and love that is just so beautifully played.
I still haven’t seen Uncut Gems, though I hear Sandler is excellent in it and it’s good to know he still flexes those dramatic acting muscles when he could just be raking it in with easy comedies.
Vince Vaughn – Brawl In Cell Block 99
I honestly still haven’t decided if I actually liked this film or not, but it’s certainly memorable due in part to the extreme violence, and a transformative performance by Vaughn.
I’ve enjoyed watching Vince Vaughn since Swingers and Made way back in the day, but there’s no denying a significant amount of his filmography has involved forgettable but lucrative comedy work – that’s not a criticism, as he’s very good at it, but he does occasionally try to go a little darker.
Unfortunately, his first attempt to do so was in the little-loved Psycho remake where his Norman Bates paled in comparison to the superb performance by Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock’s original. He tried again off and on, and make a big leap with his role in True Detective, and even though he had funny lines, he seemed to be on a more successful path to darkness.
That path led to Brawl In Cell Block 99, which sees him play a bulked-up, skin-headed criminal sent to prison for a crime he sort-of committed as part of a bigger, dastardly scheme to force him into a suicide mission which involves inflicting serious and bloody violence on a collection of villains.
There’s a casual, no-nonsense attitude to the way he hurts people in this that is almost as upsetting as the blood and gore itself, and Vaughn completely sells both the loving family man and the capable, efficient killer. If you haven’t seen it, and you have a strong stomach, it’s worth it for seeing what Vaughn’s capable of, even if you don’t enjoy the film.
George Clooney – O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?
I’ve had a fondness for O’ Brother… since I saw it on release (and I’ll probably go into that in a future Late Review), but one of my favourite things about it was just how much fun Clooney seemed to be having in the role.
The Coens seem to bring great performances out of Clooney – hey, I even liked Intolerable Cruelty – but prior to this I only really knew him as ‘that bloke from ER’ and ‘that rubbish Batman’, so seeing him simultaneously celebrating and mocking his classical Hollywood looks and charm in a film that was like nothing I’d ever seen before was a real surprise.
I think it could be easy for a superstar like Clooney to become self-focused and only take roles which pander to that vanity, but in O’ Brother… he happily goofs around, acts like a cartoon, and it feels like despite the period setting and cavalcade of daftness going on around him, it feels like we’re getting a glimpse at Clooney himself.
I’ll be honest, this entry was a tie with another Coen Brothers alum, thanks to Brad Pitt’s wonderfully goofy performance in Burn After Reading. You know, this one?
I’d love to hear some of your most surprising performances – what role made you change your opinion about an actor or actress? Go wider if you like, and tell me about a filmmaker who shocked you with a sudden change of direction.
Take to the socials or comments section, and let me know!
Have you read our By The Decade series? Every Friday, I highlight a few of my favourite films from any given decade and ask for your suggestions to help me fill in some gaps in my movie knowledge. So far, we’ve covered the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s – you can find them all right here!