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Will Rainn Wilson go big and go home?

Our favorite nerd from “The Office,” Rainn Wilson, risks alienating his fan base with the broad, and potentially really bad, “The Rocker.”
/ Source: contributor

Rainn Wilson was probably on your radar prior to 2005 only if you were a fan of “Six Feet Under,” where he played a very weird guy on a very smart show. Since 2005, he’s played Dwight Schrute on “The Office” — a very weird guy on a very smart show. In both cases, but particularly as Dwight, Wilson has the opportunity to unleash a rigorously calibrated intensity that plays particularly well as a complement to languorous deadpanners like John Krasinski or more neatly turned out clowns like Steve Carell.

It feels like it’s only fair for a gifted comic sidekick to get a shot at being a big star. If a little bit of Rainn Wilson acting weird is good, it stands to reason that a lot would be better, right? In his new film, “The Rocker” (Aug. 20), it certainly we’re all getting a lot of Rainn Wilson. Perhaps all of Rainn Wilson, if the naked webcam scenes are to be believed.

But is it going to know, good? The scenes that are available through the movie’s official site suggest that this is going to be a ramped-up, noisy, overplayed movie in which everyone is screaming and mugging and having fits. Does the Rainn Wilson brand of energy play the same way when it’s buried under all that?

In many ways, we’re living in a Rainn Wilson world. Not only is “The Office” one of the most respected half-hours still standing on the comedy-deprived TV landscape, but his bizarre, geeky charm is right in the sweet spot of the current culture. Comic books are hot, sci-fi is hot, weird guys are hot, funny guys are hot. But with “The Rocker,” he seems to be moving from a genre that’s on the upswing, the knowing, ironic, tamped-down comedy, to one that’s on the decline — the over-the-top, semi-gross-out comedy.

Tough time for broad comedyThis summer has been notable for the thumping it has delivered to broad comedies revolving around exaggerated characters. “The Love Guru” is the new punchline for Mike Myers haters, while “Meet Dave” demonstrated pretty conclusively that Eddie Murphy — one of the original “wind him up and watch him go” movie draws — had lost much of his power. Adam Sandler’s “You Don’t Mess With The Zohan” is the hit of the group after bringing in almost $100 million at the box office, but that’s still not a blockbuster showing, given its estimated $90 million budget. Furthermore, “Zohan” is still a really, really bad movie.

Instead, we’re looking at a lot of what you might call “everyschlub” guys. “Pineapple Express” is off to a wildly successful start, much like the rest of the Apatow catalog (“Superbad,” “Knocked Up” and so forth). In an odd way, even “WALL-E” has a schlub for a hero. It’s not about being the most attention-grabbing, over-the-top, funny-voiced goof in the theater.

Given all that, it would be awfully sad if “The Rocker” sent Rainn Wilson veering off in a schlocky direction. Part of what makes him so delightful is his utter lack of smugness and his complete authenticity. In a recent , he was kind enough to catalog exactly what sorts of nerd he was as a kid: music nerd, D&D nerd, Model U.N. nerd, bassoon-playing nerd. He clearly has a deep affinity for oddballs, and his weirdness vibrates on a frequency that can’t be matched by slickster comedians who secretly consider themselves really cool.

Surely, some things about “The Rocker” offer reasons to hope. The director, Peter Cattaneo, directed the well-regarded and surprisingly warm “The Full Monty” in 1997. Christina Applegate is in it, and she’s good in just about everything. Jason Sudeikis is in it, and he’s certainly one of the less annoying members of the current “Saturday Night Live” cast.

The danger of going bigBut still, based on the trailers, “The Rocker” feels uncomfortably dumb — kind of like “License To Wed,” which was John Krasinski’s first big starring role in a movie. Granted, it doesn’t have the added factor of the Robin Williams mugging that made “License To Wed” so hard to take, and plenty of Wilson’s highlight reel would be made up of extraordinarily silly behavior that could fit right into a slapsticky movie about an aging heavy-metal drummer. Nevertheless, when he’s one of four loud, garishly dressed guys screaming at each other during a car chase, his repressed nerd-dom seems in danger of being drowned out.

It’s easy to feel protective of actors you have liked in other roles — that reaction certainly circulated when Krasinski made “License To Wed.” It sometimes appears that stars who are trying to jump from television to movies (though that jump is certainly not as difficult as it once was) expect to start with something big and dumb — or at least big and not un-dumb — as a sort of rite of passage. Kelsey Grammer was three years into his run on the hugely respected “Frasier” when he showed up in the not-so-respected comedy “Down Periscope.” Look what happened to much of the “Friends” cast. Remember Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry in “Ed” and “Fools Rush In”?

It’s too much to ask, probably, that actors not try for the big movie. They logically want to do more, to do something else, to progress. But when they crawl out on the limb of doing something entirely different, they risk the goodwill they’ve built up along the way. For Wilson, the magnitude of his accumulated nerd credibility may well be enough to make “The Rocker” feel warmer and fuller than it would be with anyone else in the lead.

Should that not happen — should this be his “Down Periscope” — he may be comforted to know that the world is full of nerds, and happily, they will always take him back.