Al, Joseph, Ryan, Gene, and Don

Published on November 8th, 2011

Alex writes about how Ryan Gosling and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have disappointed this fall, and how he probably wants to marry Don Cheadle.

I’ve noticed a weird thing happening in some of this fall’s movies. I thought Ryan Gosling’s performance in Drive was extremely weak*, and I didn’t think Joseph Gordon-Levitt was anything special in 50/50. Had you told me this would be the case even two years ago, however, I probably would have been shocked.

*And he was mediocre in The Ides of March.









Acting is rarely the most interesting thing about a movie to me; Martha Marcy May Marlene had a pretty good Elizabeth Olsen performance and a stellar one from John Hawkes, but that movie didn’t connect with me particularly strongly because I had issues with the other aspects of the film. Typically, I’ll only notice a really good performance after the cinematography, music or writing in any given movie. The general emptiness of those aspects of Martha Macy May Marlene is the only reason I got around to noticing the acting; had half of the footage in that film not been so literally (and distractingly) dark, perhaps I never would have really noticed Olsen. Given that I have been known to discuss the positive aspects of movies like She’s the Man, I always find it odd that I’m such a tough critic when it comes to acting. I generally look at a performance like people look at editing: if I notice it at all, you’re probably doing it wrong. When I see a good performance inside a movie that I find great on the other levels mentioned – one that I really enjoy but don’t realize until after the film is over – I tend to get really excited about it. Since I’m always looking for something where an actor takes me out of a movie, I’m always happy when that moment never comes. Like with Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick. Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon perhaps, or Gene Hackman in The Conversation.

My interest in the latter two actors goes back too far to really explain why I started liking them in the first place, but Gosling and Gordon-Levitt are interesting cases because I remember exactly when they went from being people on my television while I read Sports Illustrated to people I actually found interesting. I became interested in both actors at the same time: in 2004, I saw Gordon-Levitt’s psych ward drama Manic and Gosling’s performance in The United States of Leland. I didn’t particularly love either movie, but I watched them both multiple times because that’s just what I did with movies I watched in 2004. Manic was missing something that stopped it from being good, and The United States of Leland was simply too corny to be enjoyable. I did generally like the male leads in each movie, though. I might not have rushed out to see Mysterious Skin and The Notebook, but I wasn’t going to be surprised if they ended up giving good performances in either movie. Basically, I wasn’t surprised when I enjoyed Gordon-Levitt’s performance as Brendan the teenage gumshoe in Brick, nor was I shocked that Gosling made drug-addicted schoolteacher Dan Dunne more interesting than he was clichéd. I was, however, shocked by just how good each of them was in Brick and Half Nelson when I saw them both in 2006: Gordon-Levitt does so many interesting, subtle things* that he makes the (admittedly absurd) premise of Brick wholly acceptable. And Gosling never does anything in Half Nelson that doesn’t feel right; in a film that would be so easy to get really shitty really quickly, his character somehow never stops feeling real. Walking home from the theatre in the snow after seeing Half Nelson, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was about the movie I really loved, but I knew there was something there that was far, far better than average.

*A key to his amazingness in this film: watching Gordon-Levitt’s goddamn feet is often interesting. It’s insane.










From that point, I began earnestly following each actor’s career. I didn’t go back and watch everything I missed from their early career*, but I was interested in what each would do next. I saw The Lookout because of Gordon-Levitt, and I’m happy I did because that movie is fucking awesome; I saw Stay because of Gosling, which is unfortunate because that movie is fucking awful. I wasn’t surprised by Gordon-Levitt’s performance in 500 Days of Summer, and I was equally unsurprised by Gosling’s entertaining performance in Lars and the Real Girl. This fall, however, things started to change.

*I have not seen the complete series run of Young Hercules, and I do not lose sleep over this fact.

I probably should have seen this coming: Gordon-Levitt’s performance in Inception did nothing for me, but I assumed that was because Arthur was an extremely simple character. I enjoyed Blue Valentine (inasmuch as one can enjoy that exceptionally depressing film), but even though it was basically an actor’s showcase, I didn’t exactly pray at the Church of Gosling as I left the theatre this winter. I didn’t love this movie like I loved Half Nelson, and the problem was that, this time, I instantly knew why.

As we follow the careers of artists we love, the way we appreciate them tends to change. We can only be surprised by how good somebody can be so many times. After Brick and Half Nelson, I knew what these actors were capable of and I was actively looking for more of it. It’s likely that, had Blue Valentine been made in 2006 and Half Nelson in 2010, I would have been disappointed by Half Nelson and gotten comically overexcited about Blue Valentine. As we get used to actors’ methods, we start to know what’s coming, and the lack of surprise makes us appreciate them less. This applies to other artists as well: I will probably never be as impressed by a Wes Anderson movie as I was by The Royal Tenenbaums, even though over time I have realized I actually like Rushmore a lot more. When I saw Rushmore, I knew what Anderson’s general aesthetic was, not unlike I knew Gosling tends to like to sport a fake, whispery Brooklyn accent*.

*This is probably in order to seem more Brando-esque or something. See also: Kobe Bryant’s fake Michael Jordan voice.

Musicians are the same way: my favourite record is DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, a 1996 album that is critically beloved. But since his albums are now considered disappointing, I didn’t even realize he was working on a new album until I saw that it had already been released last month. The Roots’ are probably my favourite band, but I’m not exactly trembling with excitement over their December release Undun like I was with Phrenology a decade ago, despite the fact that Undun sounds like it will be an extremely interesting record. I actually really like most of DJ Shadow’s latest album The Less You Know, the Better, and I’ll probably like Undun quite a bit as well. But it is this lack of surprise that ensures I can never love anything these artists do more than I loved the work they did before I was familiar with how they think, record, and operate.

And then, of course, there are the actors and artists you have cared about for a long time, and don’t see any drop off in your interest over the horizon. I was introduced to Gordon-Levitt and Gosling through Manic and The United States of Leland, but the only reason I ever watched those movies in the first place was because they were co-starring with Don Cheadle. I have been a fan of Cheadle since Traffic, and in the time since that movie’s release, I refuse to accept that there has been a time where he isn’t Hollywood’s best working actor. He has been great in comedies, dramas, and action movies, and there is simply never a point when he’s any less than perfect. The movies he is in certainly aren’t flawless*, but he always is. That I continue to think this every time I see him in a new movie only makes me happier because I know what his tendencies are, and he still manages to surprise me. This is rare: Benicio Del Toro is in the same boat, but he just isn’t in enough movies that I find interesting to get me to follow everything he does. Cheadle, however, is in movies I don’t always love, but movies in which I still find him incredible. It’s kind of unfortunate that I don’t feel the same way about Gordon-Levitt and Gosling today as I did a few years ago, but I suppose that’s just a natural progression.

*Crash is terrible, Traitor was only any better than bad because of an interesting twist, and I hated Hotel Rwanda.

These actors, or artists, often don’t actually get any worse as time goes on. Sure, it’s inarguable that this does happen (Al Pacino clearly gives a better performance in Dog Day Afternoon than he does in the truly awful Righteous Kill), but not as often as people seem to think. Any connection with a popular art happens when your tastes align with what is happening onscreen, or in your headphones. What happens is as time goes on, it’s possible that your tastes will change, as will Ryan Gosling’s and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (something that is shown by their recent attempts to show up in more blockbusters). We might not know these people, but we get used to them. And sometimes they start to suck, and we just want to make fun of them. We grow apart, and their fake Brooklyn accent starts to wear on us. We might hope they get everything they want out of life, or we might hate them for how we feel they wronged us (which people seem to do with my beloved Pacino). But this is a totally natural occurrence; it’s so rare that some sort of everlasting friendship will happen in our lives that it’s ridiculous to ever expect the same out of the people we follow in their fake lives.


  1. Posted by Michael on November 23rd, 2011, 04:49 [Reply]

    Don Cheadle is highly underrated, and is an amazing actor. The consistency is the key. I have to ask though – What did you hate about Crash?

    Gosling I’ve been following since his Breaker High/Young Hercules days (I was young, sue me), and the relationship is on and off for me.

    Gordon-Levitt still impresses me though. Although I didn’t watch 50/50 because I had a feeling it would be less than spectacular.



  2. Posted by alex on November 23rd, 2011, 16:11 [Reply]

    I didn’t care for Crash because everything in it was so incredibly broad that I couldn’t take it. I liked it the first time I saw it, but when I caught it again that’s how I felt. I think somebody else said this, but it was so broad that it seemed like a satire about race, except it was taking itself very seriously.

    We all watched Sean Hanlen have his first kiss, and there’s nothing embarrassing about that. Thanks for reading!

  3. Posted by Michael on December 7th, 2011, 02:15 [Reply]

    Ahhh, I can see that. I only watched it once, but looking back, it was a very stereotypical view of cultures in American society. A few scenes do come to mind pretty quickly as over the top, where your left feeling like “they can’t be serious…”

    Haha, Jimmy was my favourite! No problem, you’re a good writer.


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