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Meg Ryan’s escape from Cute Island

Actress’ ‘In the Cut’ role strays too far from her strengths. By Sarah D. Bunting
/ Source: contributor

Meg Ryan has a problem. The problem is that she’s Meg Ryan. Wait, no — the problem isn’t that she’s Meg Ryan. It’s that she won’t accept that she’s Meg Ryan.

Of course, it's not hard to see why she’d jump at the chance to dye her hair and sex it up with Mark Ruffalo in “In The Cut.” Ruffalo is hot, even with that sketchy ‘stache he’s working these days, and — well, what do you think of when you think of Meg Ryan?

A button nose, for starters, which crinkles frequently. Various adorably razored hairstyles, designed to draw the eye to the aforementioned nose. Words like “perky” and “daffy” and “sweet.” And “cute,” of course.

Meg Ryan is, first and foremost, America’s cutie. She’s cute-errific. She’s cute-tastic. She’s ten pounds of cute in a five-pound bag (a darling Kate Spade tote, no doubt). She’s Cute Rockne.

“Cute” beats “horse-faced” or “difficult” as far as labels go, but it’s got to feel confining after a while — and dismissive, too. “Cute” isn’t taken seriously, or run uncut on Bravo with commentary from the director; “cute” will get you as far as a presenter gig at the Academy Awards, but it’s not going to score you a nomination, because the average Important Film is about as cute as a tax return.

Escape from Cute Island
It makes sense, then, for Meg Ryan to try to throw off the sugar-encrusted mantle of “cute” and switch things up, going for roles that don’t cause quite as many cavities as “French Kiss” and “Kate & Leopold.” She’s probably tired of coming off like a lightweight, not to mention sleepwalking through the same Sally-esque roles over and over again, and furthermore, she’s 42-years old. “Cute” has a sell-by date, unfortunately, past which it becomes “Charo” — a fact that can’t have escaped her (the more heartless readers may insert their own Russell Crowe jokes here).

In other words, she’s bored and in need of a Plan B, and the Escape From Cute Island strategy is a perfectly reasonable response to that. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to work.

Why not? Meg Ryan’s detractors would tell you that it’s because she’s not a very good actor, which isn’t entirely accurate. She is in fact very good — at a specific type of role, which her detractors would then define as a lack of range, which isn’t entirely accurate either.

Casting vs. acting range
“Range” comes in two flavors: casting range, and acting range. The actors generally considered great — the Oliviers, the Meryl Streeps — consistently demonstrate both types of range, inhabiting any role given to them from the inside out and doing excellent work. Most actors currently working, however, fall into one of the two categories (or neither of them — Denise Richards, anyone? — but that’s another article).

Take Tom Cruise, an actor with casting range. He’s believable as just about anything: a high-school wrestler, a relationship guru, a lawyer, a paraplegic, a vampire — okay, the vampire is a bad example, but you can plug Cruise into just about any role, and he’s equally convincing across the board. He’s not lighting up the screen with capital-A acting, but he gets it done, whether it is “sports agent” or “detective from the future.”

Acting range is the inverse of casting range. James Gandolfini can only play so many roles, and all of them contain the words “beefy” and/or “menacing” in the character description, but he does careful and subtle work in each one, even if “The Last Castle’s” Colonel Winter isn’t all that different from Tony Soprano.

But can Moore crinkle her nose? Which brings us back to Meg Ryan. “Sleepless In Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “You’ve Got Mail” — the plots all sort of blend together, and so do Ryan’s characters, and maybe perky meet-cute wackiness isn’t your thing, but regardless, Ryan has the patent on it. Comedy is harder than it looks, especially when you play the straight man most of the time, as she does, and Ryan gets these roles for a reason — she’s cute. She’s charming. She’s no Julianne Moore, but let’s face it, Julianne Moore would have sucked in “Innerspace.”

But Julianne Moore would have rocked Ryan’s “In the Cut” role, in a way that Ryan can’t, because Julianne Moore has casting range, and Ryan doesn’t — as she’s already proven, actually, to everyone’s satisfaction but her own. Her turn as alcoholic Alice Green in “When a Man Loves a Woman” is one example; slurred diction and a dearth of eye makeup do not a convincing portrayal of an addict make.

More recently, “Proof of Life” called on her to do a lot of crying and running around, and her acting isn’t bad, exactly, but it’s not persuasive, either. You could see Gwyneth Paltrow marrying a kidnapping target, but Meg Ryan? No.

“In the Cut” asks Ryan to play a teacher who enters into a “Last Tango in Paris”-style affair with a possibly murderous detective — a role that just isn’t believable for her. She’s not convincing as a New Yorker (or, frankly, a brunette), never mind an emotionally detached Ph.D. who spies on a sex act in the back room of a bar. She can’t play self-destructive, or wryly numb, or simultaneously resigned to and turned on by her own degradation — exactly the nuances the Frannie role requires, and exactly the ones Ryan has historically shown little aptitude for. Wanting to stretch as an actor is fine, but not if it puts you in traction.

Career Rx
It’s certainly possible for Ryan to move beyond the pertly saccharine stuff she’s gotten bogged down in without straining audience credulity. She just has to do it slowly, which might mean taking smaller roles and lower billing for a while, at least until she can wean the movie-going public (and casting agents) off the cute thing.

For instance, she can keep going the romantic-comedy route — but why not sub for Carrie Fisher in the Sarcastic Best Friend role for a change? A thriller is fine, too, but how about one in which she’s the detective — or better yet, the detective’s wisecracking lieutenant? What if she tried out a Favreau script, or an Allen one, instead of an Ephron?

Ryan doesn’t have to do “cute” anymore if she doesn’t want to; at this point, it’s as boring for us as it is for her. But she’s got to stop overcorrecting for “cute” with parts she’s clearly wrong for, because it only reinforces her image as a one-note performer who’s in over her head.

Hey, “Ocean’s Twelve” hasn’t started shooting yet. Teach her a couple card tricks and put her in that. The Terry Benedict character needs a new girlfriend, after all…

Sarah D. Bunting is the co-creator and co-editor-in-chief of Television Without She lives in Manhattan.