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Jude Law is more than a pretty face

So why aren’t audiences flocking to his many new releases? By Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

This fall, you can’t go to the cinema without running smack into a Jude Law movie. You also can’t open a magazine, walk past a bus shelter, eat a bowl of cereal, or close your own eyelids (two of these examples are exaggerated — but which two?!) without seeing an ad for yet another movie he’s in, opening tomorrow. Seriously, the man is in six movies that have opened or are opening in the last four months of 2004. Six. Even Ben Stiller is like, “Give it a rest.”

But are we? In theory, no: the man is not what you would call hard on the eyes. He could cross the street in Manhattan and stop traffic in Vermont — he’s that good-looking. And in all his ’04 movies, he’s really trading on those good looks — as an all-American corporate stooge in “I [Heart] Huckabees,” an irresistible cad in “Alfie,” and a cheating boyfriend in “Closer.” (To name half, just as examples.) It’s not like any of them is another “Road to Perdition,” where he perversely hid his light under a bushel of really bad teeth. And yet, the American movie-going public has responded with a pointed yawn: the indie “Huckabees” has performed well for what it cost, but his mainstream movies have, so far, kind of flopped.

Entertainment Weekly has said that Law’s as-yet unproven ability to open a big movie will be a boon to his career, artistically, returning him to the smaller character roles in which he really gets to shine (like his Oscar-nominated role in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” the robot gigolo that was the single interesting thing in “A.I.”, or the aforementioned historical paparazzo in “Perdition”). But is that just spin? Can Law go on if he’s just the pretty label on a bottle of box-office poison? Or is his preternatural prettiness the very thing that’s keeping half the audience (i.e. the straight male half) out of theatres?

Sarah D. Bunting
It’s tempting to blame Law’s mediocre box-office record on his perfect face — straight guys don’t dig him, he’s not taken seriously because he’s so beautiful, whatever. He’s a very good actor, but it’s not necessarily what he’s known for; I can’t say I sat through two tush-busting hours of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” because I cared all that much about the plot.

But I don’t think Law needs to treat his prettiness like a liability, at least not yet. For starters, he hasn’t really opened many pictures on his own — “Alfie” is the only recent one that relied solely on Law to drive ticket sales, and we can probably blame its middling performance on remake fatigue. And I guess you could call him the lead in “Enemy at the Gates,” but that movie came into a market already saturated with World War II product. Usually, Law is sharing billing (and blame) with other name actors, and if “Closer” does poorly, Julia Roberts will probably get the blame, not Law.

Law’s movies don’t do “Titanic” business, it’s true, but he doesn’t have any historic flops on his c.v., either, and in any case, I don’t think we can pin a film’s poor performance on his looks. “Cold Mountain” probably would have raked in more money if Minghella had cut half an hour off the end and let Law shave The Beard That Ate Pittsburgh.

Tara Ariano
Oh, the beard. Boo.

So let’s posit that even if all six of his 2004 film offerings bomb horrifically, he won’t experience any blowback from it. Is this a good or bad thing for those of us who, though we are certainly enchanted by his lovely person, also like to watch him act well in good movies?

I guess what I’m asking is, should he keep on making big mainstream popcorn movies just because he can?

Okay, what I’m really really asking is, has someone flipped a switch on his career that has turned him from an interesting and respected indie actor to a boring, cover-of-Vanity Fair-appearing, action-movie-headlining movie star? Has he turned into Nicolas Cage? And if he has, can he unflip that switch? Should he?

(By the way: I’m not the only one who uses “Nicolas Cage” as shorthand for “unforgivable sellout,” am I?)

Sarah
Let us examine Law’s coif for a moment. Do we detect the presence of ill-disguised hairplugs? No? Then he’s not turning into Nicolas Cage.

(I assume that answers your last question above. Heh.)

It seems like the entertainment media want Jude Law to become a Cage, or more accurately a Harrison Ford or a Tom Cruise — a reasonably handsome guy and decent actor who’s believable in a range of the Action Everyman roles that open pictures really big on holiday weekends. It isn’t about Law, really, or whether he’s right for those roles or “too handsome” for them; it’s about the fact that Harrison Ford is 62 years old and his heir is still not apparent.

As a result, every time a good-looking actor who seems to have staying power comes along, the Hollywood press try to anoint him as The Guy — the Bruce Willis or the Will Smith or the Whoever Dude who guarantees a film’s success — regardless of whether the title fits him (or is where he wants to go). Vanity Fair and others gave Colin Farrell the same “all hail the conquering blah blah” treatment last year…and Farrell bought the hype, and now he and that wretched blond wig are clearing mantel space for the armload of Razzies he’s bound to pick up for the bomb-a-licious “Alexander.”

In other words, Jude Law isn’t the one spinning predictions about his fitness as a box-office powerhouse; it’s everyone else. He doesn’t seem to care much about his Q rating, and if he doesn’t let other people decide what his career is going to look like, he can probably avoid canyon-esque pitfalls like “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin II: The Revenge.”

Tara
I think he’ll be okay. (By which I mean, I think he’ll do what I want him to.) Though the big Jude Law story this year is about, along with his ubiquity, his sudden and seemingly quite calculated push to prove he can be a mainstream leading man, most of his movies this fall are still indies at heart. “The Aviator” has a big budget and lots of fancy set decoration, but it’s Scorsese; he’s still a maverick. “Closer” is a tiny four-way character study, “Sky Captain” was basically an experimental art film in a sci-fi B-movie disguise, and you don’t get much more impenetrable, challenging and prickly than “Huckabees.”

In other words, even as Law has made a major effort to kick his career up a notch, he’s doing so with movies that don’t represent his eschewing everything he did before. There’s less of a jump from “Wilde” to “Sky Captain” than there is from, say, a “Raising Arizona” to a “National Treasure,” you know?

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