By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008
With comedies, in particular, casting is crucial.
Sure, the writers and directors have something to do with it. But emotionally, we look to the performers -- the Jim Carreys, Will Ferrells and Steve Carells -- to bring that humor home, to seal the deal with that mystical X factor that can't be scripted or directed.
That's why we're smiling as soon as they appear on-screen.
And that's why we feel so screamingly distracted by the presence of Ryan Reynolds in "Chaos Theory," a lighthearted romance noir made unintentionally noirer by its miscasting. With a genre as sensitive to individual talent as comedy, the right performer is essential.
For all his squinty-eyed good looks, boyish edginess, and experience in such comedies as "Just Friends" and "Definitely, Maybe," Reynolds is neither romantic nor funny. Here, he's pitched too sharp and serious, even for a movie about love's darkest downs.
He plays Frank Allen, an efficiency expert whose sure, steady life is rocked by a series of comedic misunderstandings, which cause his wife (an appealing Emily Mortimer cast in a thankless role) to believe he's having an affair. She kicks him out. And suddenly the compulsive listmaker and control freak, whose seminars advocate the mastery of personal time, is spiraling helplessly into his worst nightmare.
Comedy demands extreme states of mind. Its characters are over-the-top about their faults and foibles. They're a little too emotional, too nervous, too immature about things, and that almost grotesque exaggeration creates a fun-house mirror for our own failings. It's caricature writ large. But when these characters wander too far into the deeper, sadder and badder side of the emotional spectrum, they snap comedy's boundaries. Reynolds's performance is so taut, crabby and intense, it does precisely that. He's too disturbingly obsessed with his problems. So, no surprise, we hardly care whether he's going to resolve his issues with his wife.
It's unfortunate because "Chaos" offers a comically provocative conceit: the notion of an inflexible person forced to negotiate the straits of uncertainty and chance. We're reminded of the comparable premise in 1997's "Liar Liar," in which Jim Carrey plays a lawyer who finds himself unable to speak anything but the truth for 24 hours. Quelle horreur! But the difference in performances is instructive. Carrey, whose face/body literacy is clearly one part genius and one part India rubber, delivers that desirable idiosyncrasy. We look forward to his reactions to each plot situation. We are in perpetual thrall, lost in the ineffable fusion of star and story.
Not so with the bearded, bespectacled Reynolds. Instead of playing an Everyman whose tightly wound anxiety has simply gotten the better of his life, his Frank increasingly suggests a near-psychotic who just needs a few things to go wrong -- which, of course, they do. The result: the wrong kind of surprise. We're disturbed more than amused. During Frank's lowest moment, when he addresses a convention audience with gloomy, disturbing pronouncements, it's crucial that Reynolds bring the right balance of funny and sober, of warm fuzz and edginess. This way, our laughter connects us to him, even at his worst. ("There but for the grace . . . " we're supposed to be thinking through our tears of mirth.)
But Reynolds seems to have mistaken "Chaos Theory" for "Cape Fear." We're face to face with a splenetic, sarcastic man who yells to a stunned audience, "Anyone truly happy here? If so, raise your happy hand!" Instead of reflecting on how the mechanics of everyday life can be our comical undoing, we're thinking: restraining order. And when that's our predominant feeling, we know we've walked into the wrong seminar.
Chaos Theory (85 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for profanity and sexual content.