Thursday, November 29, 2012

Jude Law's Top 10 Performances

Jude Law is a fine actor. I’m sure everyone remembers the moment at the Oscars years ago when Chris Rock jokingly asked who the hell Jude Law, and why he was all of a sudden in every movie, and then the no fun Sean Penn felt the need to defend Law against what was really just a silly joke by saying that Jude Law was one of “our finest actors”. And Jude Law can be a great actor. His most recent film, Anna Karenina, opens in Toronto this week – and Law is getting mostly good reviews, even from those who don’t like the movie very much. So, like I have seemingly done a lot lately, I thought I’d look back at his best performances to date.

10. Gattaca (Andrew Niccoll, 1997)
Gattaca was the film that brought Jude Law to my attention. This intelligent, thoughtful sci-fi film is about a futuristic, genetically “perfect” society. In the film, Law plays one of those genetically perfect people, who has become paralyzed from the waist down in an accident, so he “sells” his identity to Ethan Hawke, the film’s hero, who doesn’t have the genes required to fulfill his ambitions. Law is very good in his supporting role – a man who knows he has been screwed out of his “rightful” lot in life, and figures out a way to con the system. This film showed that Law had real promise as an actor – a promise that he has mainly fulfilled.

9. eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)
I often wonder what actors make of material like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. They have to know that making it all seem believable is almost going to be impossible. After all, this is a movie where Law has to play a video game virgin, who ends up licking the port in the small of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s back where the controller plugs in, and explains that it’s just his game character doing it, not him. Or, where he has to eat the most disgusting looking fish I’ve ever seen in a movie, and then make a gun that fires teeth, out of the skeleton. The only way to make material like this work is to fully embrace it – take the chance that you may end up looking like an idiot, and go for it. And Law does that, and that helps to make eXistenZ an interesting movie. It’s not one of Cronenberg’s very best films, but it’s interesting – and should probably be more highly regarded than it is.

8. Contagion (Steven Soderberh, 2011)
The only real villain in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion is the virus that kills millions of people itself. But if there is a secondary villain, it would be Jude Law’s opportunistic blogger – who encourages wide spread panic, only so he can capitalize on it. Law’s subplot is one of two – the other being the baffling Marion Cotillard subplot – in the movie that seems to be connected to the rest of the movie. You could have easily cut Law out of the movie, and it may have been an even stronger film. And yet, Law is so good as at playing this morally reprehensible character, that I’m glad they didn’t do that. He looks like an idiot wandering around in his hazmat suit, but Law plays this role as well as it could be played. It may not belong in the movie, but that doesn’t mean Law isn’t great in the role nonetheless.

7. Sleuth (Kenneth Branagh, 2007)
Kenneth Branagh’s Sleuth was criminally neglected back in 2007. It isn’t a great film, but it certainly deserved more attention that it received. The screenplay was written by the great Harold Pinter, who takes the famous Sleuth’s original plot, and gives it his own touch. Pinter doesn’t seem too interested in the mystery of Sleuth – perhaps because he knows anyone interested in the movie would already know the solution. So instead, Pinter gives Michael Caine (playing the Laurence Olivier role) and Law (playing the Michael Caine role) such wonderful dialogue to delve into. The film is essentially one long, cruel, verbal chess game between these two men, who hate each other, and try to constantly to one up each other – I doubt either one of them gives a shit about the woman they are supposedly arguing over, they just want to win. Yes, Michael Caine has the better role – and delivers the better performance. But Law holds his own – which against Caine in top form, is saying something.

6. Road to Perdition (Sam Mendes, 2002)
In Road to Perdition, Law plays an extremely creepy little man – with pale skin, rotting teeth and receding hairline, Law is miles away from his usual sex symbol self – and it works. He plays a crime scene photographer, who has crossed over to actually committing crimes – as a hired assassin. Law’s character isn’t given the depth of Paul Newman’s brilliant supporting turn, or Tom Hanks as the main character, but Law’s work here does precisely what it is supposed to do – creep the audience out, and give them a true portrait of evil. A wonderful performance by Law playing against type.

5. Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004)
To a certain extent, both Law and Julia Roberts, who are supposedly the leads in Closer, are overshadowed in by Clive Owen and Natalie Portman who play the two key supporting roles. And while it’s true that Owen and Portman are brilliant in the film – richly deserving of the Oscar nominations they received – Law is excellent in his own way. He plays a shallow, superficial London writer – slumming it writing obituaries, until he meets Portman, and then writes a novel about their relationship – and then he meets Roberts, when getting his book jacket cover taken, and on and on. Perhaps the reason why people think Law was overshadowed by the rest of the cast is because while he isn’t a nice guy – and never truly loves anyone, despite how often he proclaims he does – Law’s Dan just cannot compete with the rest of these people in terms of how despicable their behavior becomes. He is out of his league. But Law plays this role precisely how it should be played – the stupid schmuck doesn’t know what hit him.

4. A.I. (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
If I read it once, I read it a thousand times – critics claiming that Haley Joel Osment’s David, the cute little boy Mecha designed to love was a classic Spielberg creation, whereas as Gigolo Joe – played by Law – a mecha designed to have sex, was pure Stanley Kubrick – who originated the project. Apparently, that was all hogwash, but it hardly matters for Law’s performance. It has to be hard to play a robot – especially one like Law’s Gigolo Joe, who isn’t programmed to have human feelings like David – but is essentially a life sized vibrator. But Law nails it. This is an interesting performance by Law – he moves like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly – and does “feel” something for young David. But he is still just a robot – programmed to do what he does and little else. It’s hard performing these types of roles, but Law does it as good as anyone.

3. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, 1999)
Law received a richly deserved Oscar nomination for his performance as Dickie Greenleaf in Anthony Minghella’s excellent adaptation of a great Patricia Highsmith novel. Dickie is everything the title character – played in an even better performance by Matt Damon – both hates and wants to become. Dickie is rich, good-looking and charming – everyone loves Dickie, and when he talks to you, he makes you feel important. But Dickie, it must be said, is also a complete asshole – which Law makes perfectly clear. He doesn’t deserve what he gets, yet still there is something satisfying about it when Law’s Dickie, who so casually and cruelly discards Ripley, gets precisely what Ripley thinks he has coming to him. And Law nails that tricky mixture – between someone you want to be, and someone you want to kill.

2. I Heart Huckabees (David O. Russell, 2004)
Strangely, I compare Law’s performance in I Heart Huckabees to his role in The Talented Mr. Ripley – even though the two films could not possibly be more different. David O. Russell’s comedy is one of the strangest creations of the past decade – a comedy about a loser (Jason Schwartzman), who believes something strange is going on, so he hires two existential detectives to follow him and figure out what. Schwartzman’s job, as an environmentalist, brings him into contact with Law’s Brad – who works for the department store chain Huckabees. Brad and Huckabees doesn’t give a shit about the environment, but knows it’s bad PR to admit that, so he jumps on board with Schwartzman’s crusade – and pretty soon has all the credit to himself. Brad is similar to Dickie Greenleaf because he is precisely the person that you simultaneously want to be – he’s rich, good looking, charming and everyone loves him – and that you cannot stand – because he’s rich, good looking, charming and everyone loves him. And both receive their comeuppance as well – but Brad’s doesn’t involve a boat oar, just vomit. A deliriously, strangely funny movie – and a great performance by Law.

1. Cold Mountain (Anthony Mingella, 2003)
I have a lot of problems with Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain – and they almost all involve Renee Zellweger’s extremely grating, annoying (and yet somehow Oscar winning) performance – and none involve Law. I seem to be in the minority on that, this movie – clearly split into two parts, the first being home on Cold Mountain itself with Nicole Kidman, a hopeless city girl, trying to run the family farm and needing the pluck of Zellweger to do it and the second, involving Law as he wanders home from the Civil War (as a Confederate deserter)  seems to have more people praising the Kidman/Zellweger part (which I didn’t like very much) instead of the Law part (which I loved). As Law tries desperately to get back to the woman he loves – but barely knows – he comes across a series of strange characters – many of whom threaten to upstage him, but never does. Personally, I would love to see a version of Cold Mountain that is just about Law coming back from the war – jettison the rest of the crap, but the star here is Law – so although Cold Mountain is a hugely problematic film for me, it still contains Jude Law’s best work to date.

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