“I don’t know / where to go / what’s it all mean / I want my own thing / so bad I’m gonna scream.”
The song “Scream” illuminates a major moment in “High School Musical 3,” one in which Zac Efron’s Troy faces a big question: Should he pursue a musical theater life that may paint him as an outcast or one as a basketball player that could forever pigeonhole him as a jock?
Four years have passed since that movie was in theaters, but Efron still faces a somewhat similar dilemma in his own career. After becoming famous by romancing Vanessa Hudgens in those chipper Disney movies, should he focus on star turns in chick-flicky, mainstream roles (see: “The Lucky One”), or prove that he can hold his own in grittier fare, such as “The Paperboy”? Or, to put it another way: Has Efron reached a level as an actor where the public is willing to accept him when he does his “own thing”?
The short answer is perhaps not yet, though he’s definitely trying to get to that point, and has been since his appearance in Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles.”
“It was definitely a step forward, in my opinion, and a risk, and something that I wasn’t even expecting of myself at the time, so I knew no one else would be,” Efron said in a 2009 interview with The Washington Post’s Jen Chaney while promoting the Linklater-directed indie that gave the pretty boy his first opportunity to tackle adult drama.
As that comment implies, Efron is keenly aware of his “High School Musical” problem and has become even more willing to discuss it candidly as time passes.
In a sit-down last month with BlackBook magazine, Efron bluntly said: “As a man watching Zac Efron, I don’t necessarily like me yet. So how can I like Zac Efron? ... Maybe, if that guy shook things up, did what I didn’t expect him to do, if he wasn’t afraid to be a [expletive], if he wasn’t afraid to fall on his face, if he hung around long enough and did the grunt work, one day I might respect him.”
Give the guy points for self-awareness and humility, something a certain Shia LaBeouf — who also has had to navigate the road from Disney kid to fearless actor — would be wise to note.
Of course, candor in interviews doesn’t make someone a good actor. For moviegoers to buy Efron in more challenging material, he has to prove he’s capable of being bought. And he’s started to do that.
Efron’s movies have typically not won rave reviews. (“New Year’s Eve,” as one example, boasts a flaccid 7 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) But critics often point out that it’s the material, and not the blue-eyed star, that’s the problem.
Vulture noted that despite “New Year’s Eve” ’s cliches and overall predictability, “Efron was the liveliest . . . he’s been onscreen in years” and marked his and Michelle Pfeiffer’s vignette as the best in the film.
Reviews for “Charlie St. Cloud,” panned for its brooding script and overemotional narrative, also indicated that Efron’s acting has outshined his projects. A New York Daily News critic said, “Somehow, Efron rises above the sentimentality, creating an undeniably likable portrayal of a young man in turmoil. Those who haven’t seen him since he graduated from ‘High School Musical’ may not believe it, but this former tween idol is the saving grace in a movie that needs all the miracles it can muster.”
Even before he “graduated” from musicals, Efron was charming critics with his boyish believability and physicality. Entertainment Weekly gave Efron a positive review for his turn in the final movie of the “High School Musical” franchise, noting that “the beauty of Efron’s performance is that he’s a vibrant athletic hoofer who leaps and clowns with the heartthrob vigor of a young Gene Kelly, yet he’s also achingly sincere. His fast-break alertness makes him the most empathetic of teen idols; he’s like a David Cassidy who knows how to act, and who can swoon without getting too moist about it.”
Which brings us to “The Paperboy,” an attempt by Efron to dip his once squeaky-clean toes into some scuzzy swamp waters, waters that involve, among other things, murderous plot points, many scenes of him in his skivvies and the sight of Nicole Kidman urinating all over him after his character suffers from severe jellyfish stings. The movie has polarized viewers since it debuted at Cannes. But some reviews indicate that maybe Efron played it smart by signing on for this one.
Says A.O. Scott in the New York Times: “[Macy] Gray and Mr. Efron’s scenes together — sometimes playful, sometimes awkward, sometimes painful — provide a few moments when ‘The Paperboy’ feels anchored in, and curious about, an actual social reality.”
Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers calls Efron’s performance in the gritty film “surprisingly vivid,” while AP’s review makes the point of admiring “the eclectic film choices [Efron’s] making as he grows up [and] shows some range.”The Post’s Michael O’Sullivan agrees that “In this crowd, Efron more than holds his own,” which is “not easy to do.”
At the very least, purely by being in “The Paperboy” Efron demonstrates that he belongs in the same frame as actors such as Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and John Cusack. Which is another important step on his path toward being the Zac Efron that Zac Efron, and the rest of us, can accept.
In the coming months, as his work in such films as “This is Where I Leave You” and the Seth Rogen comedy “Townies” reaches the masses, he’ll have even more chances to demonstrate the extent of his range.
Do you think he can pull it off? I, for one, would bet on it. But please weigh in with your Efron thoughts by posting a comment.