Here are two words to strike fear in an intrepid film critic: Rose Byrne.
Well, not any intrepid film critic. This intrepid film critic. Because I’ve never gotten Rose Byrne. While her career has steadily ascended, with the pretty Australian actress snagging bigger and bigger roles, I’ve remained as curiously unmoved as I was when I first saw her — in the uneven, strenuously striving-to-charm “I Capture the Castle.”
Since then, Byrne has become a go-to actress when a role demands a game, deadpan sense of mischief. Admittedly, she made the most of that quality in “Bridesmaids,” in which she played a superficial, slightly snobby character; I found her Slavic-accented froideur opposite Melissa McCarthy in “Spy” similarly amusing and deceivingly well calibrated. In her new movie, “The Meddler,” she does a perfectly respectable job as the daughter of a boundary-challenged mom; late in the film, she even laughs and cries simultaneously, no mean technical feat.
But even while finding things to admire in her performances, I have yet to feel the Byrne. Which underscores an occupational hazard for film critics who are routinely asked to appraise the work of actors who, through no lack of talent or fault of their own, just happen to leave the reviewer cold. For whatever reason — the unconscious associations they dredge up, the vaguely repellent echoes or off-putting synapses they fire — they inspire aversion rather than interest and sympathy. Should the ethical critic come clean about her biases? Cowboy up and hope that this time they surprise us? Focus on the cinematography and think of England?
More to the point, why do we unquestioningly “love” certain actors and instinctively, almost reflexively, “hate” others? In the vortex of 24/7 celebrity infotainment, it’s now impossible to watch performers on screen without being aware of their off-screen lives. Although I approached “The Meddler” with hesitation because of Byrne, others might avoid it because they can’t stand the politics of her co-star, Susan Sarandon. After seeing Alex Gibney’s devastating indictment of Scientology, “Going Clear,” last year, I wasn’t sure I could still be objective about Tom Cruise. Then came the latest “Mission: Impossible,” and — probably because he’s still an outstanding actor — Cruise’s dubious off-screen associations were completely banished.
But what of the actors who bug us no matter what they do in their off hours? What if it’s their face, their body, their very being that, inexplicably and unquantifiably, offends? We all have our private lists: For some people, any movie featuring Ben Affleck is a non-starter. For some, it’s Matthew McConaughey. The mere mention of indie “It Girl” Greta Gerwig is enough to send some filmgoers into a slowly-I-turn rage. For others, it’s Anne Hathaway. And we haven’t even gotten to Nicolas Cage, Adam Sandler and Shia LaBeouf, the holy trinity of actors-we-hate.
Let the record reflect that I don’t happen to be part of that “we”: I’ve witnessed each of those actors deliver at least one or two honest, accomplished performances in the course of his career. But, if I’m honest, there are stars I tend to approach with my arms crossed: I never found Kevin Costner to be a particularly interesting screen presence; he was often called the Gary Cooper of his generation, but by my lights that’s because they were equally monotonous and inert. Sam Rockwell always exuded a smarmy sarcasm that left me utterly cold. I’ve never understood the appeal of Martin Lawrence, whom I find strident and one-note. For reasons far beyond my powers of explanation, whether it was “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” or “Pitch Perfect,” Elizabeth Banks never once made me laugh; to me, she was cut from the same kind of blandly generic cloth as Kate Bosworth and January Jones — the female versions of such interchangeably attractive and preternaturally dull actors as Ryan Phillippe, Hayden Christensen and Sam Worthington.
At this juncture, it’s important to note that none of this is personal. I bear no hard-working creative artists ill will. When the lights go down, only the most uncharitable churl would be rooting for them to fail. I appreciate the sheer courage it takes to put oneself out there in any form — actors who dare to put their entire inner and outer lives on display for our derision or delectation can only be admired.
And yet, evaluating actors and their performances is deeply personal, because that’s the only thing they bring to their work: their selves. Understanding what we irrationally like and dislike about certain actors helps get to the essence of what they do, which is to be an interpretive instrument through which the audience can understand a story’s meaning and emotion. The only tools actors have for this job are their physical beings — their faces, bodies and voices — and their psychic beings, in the form of marshalling research, analysis and imagination to bring their characters to credible, emotionally affecting life.
When assessing a performance, it’s incumbent on the audience to discern what actors can control from what they can’t. Every choice an actor makes — from how to walk and facial expression to line readings and spontaneous gestures — allows the viewer to become either more immersed in the reality on screen, or alienated from it. This is why such actors as Cage and Sandler can be so polarizing with viewers: They tend to bring the same mannerisms, tics and tricks to every role they play, forgoing the subtleties of characterization in favor of pandering to audience expectations. But before dismissing them as hacks, consider how Jack Nicholson, Bill Murray and Kristen Wiig have built careers doing essentially the same thing, without facing nearly as much hostility.
There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to the actors we instinctively dislike: Whether you’re looking at someone from across a table or a 30-foot screen, it all comes down to chemistry. Love can’t be forced. But it can grow: Costner has become exponentially more layered and expressive as he’s aged. Rockwell did a magnificent job projecting both pathos and swagger as an astronaut falling apart and finding himself in “Moon” and made a downright sexy leading man in the little rom-com “Laggies.” And Banks — that “generic blonde” I had once so short-sightedly written off — delivered an exceptionally sensitive, nuanced and moving performances last year in “Love & Mercy,” all the more remarkable for the fact that she spent most of the movie simply listening.
Of course, that’s what acting is, at its best. And when actors manage to tune us in completely to what they’re hearing, everything else falls away, including our own pet peeves and preconceptions. They’re no longer who we thought they were. And, for a few hours, they invite us to become someone else, too.