There is a moment, I think, when an actor's persona becomes so chiseled and locked-in that it's impossible to accept that person as an actor anymore; he's a movie star now, and that's all he will ever be again. This is not to say this movie star cannot be effective in a film; Tom Cruise hasn't been anything other than Tom Cruise for two decades—Tom Cruise in a wheelchair! Tom Cruise with an eye patch! Tom Cruise in a fat suit!—and he can still work, if you put him in the right role and let him be the best Tom Cruise he can be (Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol being the most recent example). But once the persona is set, it's hard to come back. Cruise can't play Abraham Lincoln. Cher can't be anyone other than Cher. Robin Williams can try to button up his cokey-boomer energy all he wants, but he'll never not be Robin Williams. (Poor guy.) I'm pretty sure Jack Black has joined this club. Jack Black is always going to be Jack Black. And that Jack Black feels a lot more like Robin Williams than it used to.
Black had been in movies in small parts for years—you can find him, if you look close, in Enemy of the State, The Cable Guy, Dead Man Walking, and Waterworld—and he was beloved in the comedy community thanks to Tenacious D, guest appearances on Mr. Show, and his infamous failed TV pilot with Owen Wilson, but he didn't break through until 2000's High Fidelity as Barry, the asshole record-store employee who, it turns out, actually has more talent than any of the other hangers-on. He was a revelation in that film, representing not just the worst-case scenario of the intractable fan extremism of John Cusack's Rob but also, in the film's terrific final scene that ties everything else together, the reason such extremism is so attractive as an escape from the real planet. It's worth watching his best scenes again.
Black's never been better than he was in that movie, but even though he's found bigger success since then, I'm not sure he should have. Black is such an acquired taste—the very definition of an actor who is better as a seasoning than a main dish—that forcing him into movie-star status just because of a couple hits (animated hits, I might add) has always been a poor idea. All it does is make him mug more; Year One and Gulliver's Travels are basically just Black bugging his eyes out for 100 minutes. It has now even seeped into his supporting work; his cocaine-addled comedy star in Tropic Thunder should have been that film's highlight, but instead, you just waited for him to settle down so a more measured Robert Downey Jr., Ben Stiller, and, yes, Cruise could come in an take over. The crackling comic energy he brought to High Fidelity has been replaced, perhaps inevitably, by shtick.
The minute he comes on screen now, you wait for the Jack Black Crazy Fat Guy moment, the same way you wait for Cher to sing, or Gallagher to smash a watermelon, or Urkel to say his catchphrase. (The Muppets, a film in which Black was the worst part, is an excellent example of this.) Look, particularly, at his television guest appearances of recent vintage, from Community to The Office, in which the sum total of his contribution is "Look, it's Jack Black!" He's such a cartoon that The Office—which had Jim Carrey and Warren Buffet play characters within the Scranton universe—had to place him in a movie-within-a-movie just to use him; you'd never believe him as anyone in that world other than Jack Black. The surprise is gone. Black is essentially a more talented version of Charles Nelson Reilly.
So it makes sense that Black, who is clearly not a stupid man, is trying to get back to basics and shake it up. This week brings us Bernie, in which Black reteams with Richard Linklater—the director who in The School of Rock made the best use of the Black character since High Fidelity—and appears alongside Matthew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine. Bernie is a dark comedy about an effete man (Black) in a small East Texas town who befriends an elderly crank (MacLaine) and ultimately murders her ... to the delight of the town. It's based on a true story—first reported in a terrific Skip Hollandsworth piece in Texas Monthly—and, in one of those risky Linklater gimmicks that either work perfectly or tear a movie apart, it features actual residents of the East Texas town commenting on the real people of the story while Black and MacLaine act out the plot. (McCounaughey, who plays a district attorney, actually interacts with some of the real residents, which is jarring; you keep expecting him to tell the toothless old lady how she should start knitting with hemp.)
This isn't a terrible idea, though it does sometimes make you feel as if you're watching some TRUE! CRIME! show on MSNBC, with Black and MacLaine as the world's most expensive re-enactment actors. But, I'm sad to say, the real problem is Black. It's not that he doesn't give his best effort. He dials back all his mannerisms, internalizing them so that his endlessly polite and generous Bernie feels secretly insane from the repression, and he's inherently sweet the way this character should be; it's a warm, compassionate performance. Unfortunately, it's still Jack Black, and you can still seem him struggle to clamp down on all his tics. Our relationship with Black as an actor now is to expect insincerity, so we reflexively see it even when Black is trying to give his most sincere, empathic, big-hearted performance. It always looks like Jack Black trying to be serious; it never looks like "Bernie." Because of this, we even find ourselves starting to doubt the realism of the townspeople narrators ... and they're actual real people.
This is, in a lot of ways, Tom Cruise playing Abe Lincoln. Black can still be an effective, entertaining actor, but this is almost too restrictive, too clamped. Black might have reached that point at which you can only buy him if he has a touch of the Jack Black Character, at a minimum. (This is why Black's upcoming Frank or Francis, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, which stars Black as an angry Internet commenter who becomes embroiled with a film director played by Steve Carell, feels like a good fit.) Black is a skilled actor, but he is not a muted one, not anymore. It's one of those performances that feels like showing off by not showing anything off at all. I credit his effort and applaud that he's accepting that Gulliver's Travels just isn't going to cut it anymore. But he is still Jack Black, acceptable only in small doses. It's a valiant attempt, but it's not a surprise. It's going to be difficult for Black to surprise us again.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.