Rob Edelman: Actors On The Rise

Apr 30, 2018

Happily, not all new films are throwaways: movies that are mindless, that exist only as popcorn escapism and are forgotten before the closing credits have faded from the screen, and that feature throwaway performances. On one level, of course, not all popcorn movies are wastes of time. For after all, nothing really beats escaping from one’s problems and losing oneself in a comedy, drama or adventure, just so long as it is genuinely diverting.

Adding to that diversion, however, may be eye-opening performances by otherwise familiar faces and names. These are actors who either are best-known for their work on television or who have graced the casts of other films. Yet their presences here tell us that they have it within them to become long-lasting mainstream movie stars.

Two such actors are Jon Hamm and Elle Fanning. Hamm stars in BEIRUT, a lucid, multifaceted thriller in which he plays an American diplomat. It’s the early 1970’s: He and his wife happily reside in Lebanon and have become attached to a 13-year-old orphan whose older brother just happens to be an infamous Palestinian terrorist. The story moves to a decade later and involves the now-ex diplomat who for a range of reasons has become attached to alcohol. He is recruited to negotiate the release of a CIA agent who once was his best friend and now is a hostage.

Fanning plays the title character in MARY SHELLEY, a combination romantic drama-biopic. The scenario focuses on the relationship between Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and the poet Percy Shelley, the manner in which she came to write Frankenstein, and her determination to embrace her independence in a male-dominated culture. 

Both films are well-worth seeing and savoring, and one of the main reasons are the respective presences and performances of Jon Hamm and Elle Fanning. Will they permanently transition to the Big Screen A-list? Will they typify actors from Clint Eastwood to George Clooney, who started out on TV series, or Robert Duvall, who began playing small roles in a host of big films?  

With this in mind, there also are actors who already are big screen personalities and Academy Award-winners but who make poor on-screen choices. One is Brie Larson, who deservedly earned a Best Actress Oscar in 2015 for her astonishing performance in ROOM. Larson not only stars in but directs UNICORN STORE, playing an alienated young woman with artistic aspirations. To get her life together and have her dreams become realities, she decides to acquire what may be best-described as a pet unicorn.

One might understand why UNICORN STORE appealed to Larson, and this perhaps is because of its point-of-view: It parodies the kind of self-help organizations that teach you how to smile like a robot. But the film is more concerned with spotlighting Larson’s diverse, eye-opening wardrobe, even though her character lives with her parents and supposedly has no money and no resources. In scene after scene, Larson appears in a different wardrobe. Her clothes are collectively bright, flashy, show-offy. But at its core, UNICORN STORE is a stale comedy-- and you know that Brie Larson can do better. Much, much better...    

Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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