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Jennifer Garner: Not quite A-list ready

‘Alias’ has a brand-new time slot, but her movie career has yet to ignite. By Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Three short years ago, Jennifer Garner celebrated her Golden Globe win for best actress in a drama series for the TV show “Alias” by joking, “I know I was good in ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?,’ but seriously…” At the time, the humor derived from her somewhat thin film résumé. But now, maybe the joke is on us.

Garner has most certainly become more famous since then — mostly by divorcing one past co-star (Scott Foley) and dating two others (Michael Vartan, of “Alias,” and her current swain, Ben Affleck of “Daredevil”). But whether she’s any more of a movie star than she was when she won that Golden Globe is an open question.

“13 Going On 30” was supposed to be her “Big,” but it did only so-so box office, getting overshadowed by the similarly girl-themed but much better executed “Mean Girls,” which opened the following week. And while Garner managed what Affleck didn’t — to star in a “Daredevil” sequel — the fact that “Elektra” is getting a January release date suggests that the studio doesn’t have especially high expectations for it.

But perhaps we’re being cynical. Will “Elektra” be the film that lets Garner transition from tabloid fodder to A-list movie star?

Sarah D. Bunting
In a word: No.

It’s too bad, really. Garner is, in my opinion, immensely likable; in the almost universally reviled Hannah role on “Felicity” back in the day, she brought a certain nuanced charm to the character, even though viewers would inevitably side against her.

But if she were going to make the leap to the A-list, she’d have done it with “13 Going On 30.” That didn’t happen, and I don’t think it’s because the movie itself stank (it isn’t as good as “Big” or anything, but it’s cute, and she’s cute in it), or because “Mean Girls” swamped it at the box office. I have a feeling that audiences just don’t buy, or care to see, Garner as anything but a wig-sporting, ass-kicking spy — or some variation thereon.

“Elektra” will probably do pretty well, because it’s the kind of thing people want to see Garner doing, but even if it does, Jen isn’t going to score a seat at the Oscar-bait buffet alongside Julia Roberts as a result, because she’s considered an action star. Like I said above, it’s sort of unfair, because while she’s a credible action hero, she can also act; maybe she’s not Laura Linney, but she’s not as limited a thespian as a lot of “actors” in the action genre.

The Affleck thing isn’t helping her, either, probably — I mean, who breaks up with Michael Vartan? Does she have cataracts? — but I think she’d have the same career issues even if she’d stayed with Scott Foley.

Tara Ariano
There’s also the question of how many people want to see her as a wig-sporting, ass-kicking spy, because the ratings for “Alias,” before it moved to its current post-“Lost” time slot? Not so hot. The show gets a ton of buzz and award nominations, and its star sure does her part keeping her mug in the public eye, but the show is not exactly a runaway hit.

Now that ABC has wisely moved it away from all its Sunday-night competition, “Alias” may well find a new audience and thrive. But if it doesn’t, that might actually be a good thing for Garner’s movie career. The action in “Alias” is unlike anything Garner had done in her career before, and since she’d worked with series creator J.J. Abrams before on his above-mentioned show “Felicity,” it’s easy to imagine that he cast her as Sydney Bristow not so much because he thought her Hannah, a mousy pianist, was hiding untapped Krav Maga skills, but because she brought to the role the sweetness required for the show’s non-action scenes. Lots of other female actors play hard-punching bad-asses — like Lucy Lawless or Angelina Jolie — but neither of them would have been as good playing Sydney in her more vulnerable moments as Garner.

Garner got to show off that side of her range in “30,” and did a good job with the somewhat rote screenplay. But she’s so buff for “Alias” that it’s never her acting that takes me out of her non-“Alias” roles: it’s her guns! Especially opposite the squishy Mark Ruffalo, Garner looks like she could, at any time, flatten him with one good slap. And although she was cute in a glorified cameo in “Catch Me If You Can,” her extremely low body fat percentage was not exactly period-appropriate.

I love “Alias” and I want it to run forever. But if “Elektra” tanked and “Alias” went off the air, Garner might be allowed to cut down on her workouts and eat a Danish from time to time, and also get considered for a broader range of movie roles. It would be worse for me, but better for her.

Sarah
But what if starring on a well-regarded TV show and doing a few action movies in her off time is already what’s better for her? She’d probably like to sleep in now and then instead of getting up to do a frillion ab crunches, and I don’t blame her. She’s a good actor and a convincing fighter, and those things make her a nice living — andshe’s already got half the staff of “Us Weekly” on her tail every time she goes out for a latte as it is. Does she really want to get any more famous? I mean, her boyfriend had his pick of roles for a while there, too, and look how that turned out.

I said this about Jude Law, sort of, but Hollywood loves to christen everyone and their little sister The Next Such-And-So. It’s not enough for the Laws and Garners of the business to rock at what they already do; they have to ascend to the Cruise/Roberts pantheon. But one Julia Roberts seems like enough. More than enough, actually.

So, let me revise my earlier statement — it’s too bad that Jennifer Garner hasn’t made that leap yet, if that’s what she actually wants. But maybe it isn’t; maybe she’s happy in a middle tier of fame and satisfied creatively. Maybe the attention she gets from the Starbucks Across America touring production of “Bennifer: The Revenge” is more than enough for her. Yeah, she could get more credit for the uniqueness of her mix of talents, but maybe she’s okay with where she is.

Tara
Sure, maybe. But I don’t think she’d go to the effort of signing up for girly romances like “13” and this year’s “Catch and Release” (from the screenwriter who brought us “Erin Brockovich” and “Ever After”) if that was her object. But I guess we won’t know until “Elektra” tanks (or doesn’t) and “Alias” gets cancelled (or wins an Emmy).

Let me just say this for the record: Co-Star McDater better not set her sights on her “Elektra” castmate Goran Visnjic. I don’t care how good she is at stage combat: I’ll scratch her eyes right out.

Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting are co-creators and co-editors of