Once she was one-sixth of “Friends.” Now she is 100 percent Jennifer Aniston. Yet in the public’s mind, the math gets a little fuzzy.
Movie fans will see her soon in the romantic comedy “Just Go With It” alongside Adam Sandler. Some will look at her and see Rachel Green, her character on the megahit NBC series. Others can put a little distance between her and Rachel.
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But there don't seem to be many who can completely separate Aniston from Rachel. And that’s the rub.
“I think she’s playing the same character from ‘Friends’ over and over again,” said Chris Nashawaty, senior writer for Entertainment Weekly. “It’s a tricky thing with her movies. She’s made a bunch, they do OK at the box office, and some do really well. The problem is most don’t get great reviews. I suspect this Adam Sandler movie will be one of those.
“The bottom line is whether she’s a good actress. I would say she’s a good TV actress. She obviously had a role on ‘Friends’ that was iconic, a character that people related to and was beloved. But you can’t reproduce that character over and over again or you’ll get diminishing returns.”
“Friends” ended in 2004. Before it did, Aniston made two films that suggested first-rate things were ahead in her big-screen future. She was Joanna, love interest to Ron Livingston’s Peter, in writer-director Mike Judge’s brilliant 1999 spoof of white-collar cubicle angst, “Office Space.” And she earned sparkling reviews in “The Good Girl,” a 2002 comedy-drama about a store clerk seeking love.
But lately she has appeared in a series of romantic-themed pictures that drift back into Rachel territory, such as “Rumor Has It ...,” “The Break-Up,” “Management,” “Love Happens” and “The Switch,” with varying degrees of commercial success and almost universally tepid critical reaction.
She has taken some chances in between. She starred alongside Clive Owen in “Derailed,” a 2005 thriller. She had a role in Nicole Holofcener’s 2006 ensemble piece, “Friends With Money.” (“I found her lovely and fun to work with,” said the director.) She co-starred with Owen Wilson in “Marley & Me,” in which both took a backseat to a nutty pooch. And last year she and Gerard Butler frolicked in the action comedy “The Bounty Hunter.”
Yet for the most part, it’s been difficult for her to shake the shadow of Rachel. In some ways, that’s a positive because Aniston banked plenty of good will during the 10 seasons she appeared on “Friends.”
“You know why people pay so much attention to her is that we’re really rooting for her,” said Grae Drake, film critic for movies.com. “Jennifer Aniston has so many people on her side (because of) ‘Friends.’ She’s so funny and talented that we want her to be good. It kills us when she’s not good, or she’s not in a vehicle that’s good for her. I really take her work personally.”
No more rom-coms!
But even someone who admires the actress as much as Drake does would like to see her stretch a bit. “Personally, I’m done seeing her in romantic comedies,” she said. “I think that’s also Jennifer Lopez’s problem. I’m done with these romantic comedy cookie-cutter things. I think she (Aniston) should go outside the box.
“Let’s get her in an old-school horror film. Put her in something unexpected.”
Part of the issue is any actor’s penchant for playing themselves, or bringing significant amounts of themselves to roles. Wendy Girard, one of the top acting coaches in Los Angeles, said that is natural and understandable.
“Every actor has to bring himself or herself to a role because that’s all you’ve got,” she said. “You’re the instrument. But if you study and work hard and develop, then you get into your capacity to explore character. Not just the charming social side of your personality but the vast dimensions of all of humanity that are encompassed in literature. That’s where training comes in.
“In a feature film, you start from scratch. You’re creating a new character. With a TV series it’s the same thing over and over, just different situations.”
The opinions of average movie fans on Aniston’s career and talents vary:
From Rick Suvalle of Los Angeles: “I loved her on ‘Friends,’ but she can’t pick a movie to star in to save her life.”
Elizabeth Korecky of Newport News, Va. says: “Personally I prefer her in more serious roles than the comedy stuff she’s doing a lot lately. She simply doesn’t have a comedic face.”
From Carol Strahlendorf Vega of West Milford, N.J.: “Like her, don’t love her. I think she is an OK actress, not award-winning — but entertaining in the right role.”
And from Joan Schlecter Gruskin of Southwest Ranches, Fla.: "Saw the worst movie in a long time: ‘The Bounty Hunter.’ She starred in it. Really awful."
After “Just Go With It,” fans who want to see her embark on a radically different career path will have to wait. She has two more comedies set for release. One is “Horrible Bosses,” in which she stars opposite Jason Bateman in a story about three friends who conspire to kill their mean managers when they realize it’s the only way to true happiness; the other is “Wanderlust,” in which she and Paul Rudd play a couple who seek out a more bohemian lifestyle.
Bottom line: The jury is still out on Jennifer Aniston.
Said EW’s Nashawaty: “She’s making safe choices, but they may end up being bad choices. She needs to show she can do something else.”
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com.