During the coverage of last week’s blackout, a well-respected anchor from a major news network observed the stranded souls sleeping on the streets and in the doorways of Manhattan. The scene, he said, was like something out of a bad Kevin Costner movie.
The film he was referring to — “The Postman” — was, admittedly, a three-hour anesthetic. But is there a major, seemingly intelligent and, heaven forbid, down-to-earth star as commonly derided as Costner? One minute he’s the next Gary Cooper, the next he’s a punch line.
The anchor’s comment came just before the opening of a good Kevin Costner movie, the cowboy drama “Open Range,” scored an estimated $14.1 million in its opening weekend. It ain’t Tom Cruise territory, but it’s Costner’s biggest opening in almost five years and has critics calling it a major comeback. Not a bad showing, considering its main competition in its opening weekend was the teenage-friendly “Freddy vs. Jason” and “S.W.A.T.”
“Open Range” is quintessential Costner: a haunted loner serving a self-imposed sentence in the wilderness joins a dying community in a war against evil. At times, the actor’s iconic posturing lends itself to pretension and a few unintended laughs. But, unlike some of his other work, the flaws don’t overwhelm the film. “Open Range” is a big step toward Costner’s critical redemption. Overall, it’s a great western, commendable for its strong characters, old-fashioned sense of values and measured perspective.
The bottom line “Open Range” won’t break $100 million — the standard for blockbuster success — however, and therein lies Costner’s problem. He hasn’t owned the teen crowd since he pontificated on long, slow, wet kisses in the late ’80s. And the truth is, for a leading man and major Hollywood star, he hasn’t ever really been a sure thing in his 20-year career. Aside from his career-defining “Dances with Wolves,” it’s coat-tail tugging follow-up, “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” and “The Bodyguard,” no other Costner pic has broken $100 million. Comparatively, each of Tom Hanks’ last three movies reached that mark, and two of them blew by it.
Even Vin Diesel, with three blockbusters under his belt, has already matched Costner. Box-office doesn’t mean quality, of course, but exacerbating Costner’s problem is a decade-long artistic losing streak. The root of his failure, both actual and perceived, is his greatest success. He took the power and influence generated by “Wolves” — it won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and garnered Costner a Best Director statue and a Best Actor nomination — and turned it into the notorious “Waterworld” and the aforementioned “The Postman,” both big-budget, sci-fi bombs riddled with Costner’s poor choice and messianic tendencies.
Costner’s Rx In all fairness, he took over as director of “Waterworld” after the project was already crumbling. That he failed to learn its lessons and undertook “The Postman” — which only sounds like a “Saturday Night Live” parody — is the foolish side of tenacity. “Open Range” is the first film he’s done double duty in since. Yeah, it qualifies as a comeback, but he’s gonna need more than an authentic mustache and a cool cowboy hat to make it stick. If I was him, here’s what I’d do:
Stop directing, at least for a while. “Open Range” is a solid effort, brimming with style, care and with vision. Now look at the mess you made last time this happened. You’re a survivor, so enjoy the accolades, take your time and consider carefully the next project you choose. Avoid adaptations; too many people to please who inevitably get pissed off. Western good. Science-fiction bad. Very bad.
No more big picture. While biding your time on the next script to produce or direct, continue to rebuild your credibility by portraying conscientious Everyman characters. That means no larger-than-life roles like Eliot Ness, Robin Hood, Wyatt Earp, or whatever dopey apocalyptic hero you wish you can be. I know that’s tough for a leading man, especially when the clock is ticking and your wave might be cresting, but you can’t compete with the teen heartthrobs anymore. Trust that your audience is more discerning and will value good work.
Lighten up. Not since “Field of Dreams” has one of your characters not looked constipated. Smiling didn’t go out of style in 1989. Your performances tend toward the dour not because of their intensity or the stakes, it’s because you’re too damn self-important. Have a milkshake.
Yeah, Costner’s made some stinkers — so many, it’s practically come to be expected — but I can name five actors in 10 seconds coasting on past laurels who’ve suffered a fraction of the bad press he’s endured. The difference is in our expectations — “Dances With Wolves” set us up for the emergence of an auteur, but Costner disappointed us with his misguided ambition. Up until “Open Range,” I would’ve said “Dances With Wolves” was a fluke. Now I swear it isn’t.