It hasn't been a good week for Jesse Eisenberg. On Sunday, when the cameras caught him watching Team USA's gold medal win over Spain, the broadcasters thought he was actually Mark Zuckerberg. On Wednesday, he "contributed" an "essay" to Dave Eggers' "90 Days, 90 Reasons" site that couldn't have made him look more like the clueless, pretentious actor stereotype than if it had been produced by someone who disliked him and wanted to cause him harm. ("I'm traveling through Mongolia and currently staying in a yurt.") And on Friday, his film Why Stop Now? comes out.
Eisenberg's had trouble getting his career to continue its upward swing since his terrific turn in The Social Network, but Why Stop Now? is without question his nadir, a nattering, annoying, full-of-its-own-bullshit road comedy in which Eisenberg plays a dickwad-with-a-heart-of-gold piano prodigy who bumbles around town aimlessly with his drug addict mom (Melissa Leo, an actress I'll confess makes me feel like I have bugs under my skin) and her dealer (Tracy Morgan, not allowed to be funny). The movie itself is obnoxious and pointless, but Eisenberg, in particular, is grating: He's obviously smarter than the movie he's in, and he seems to hold it against the movie, almost undermining it at every opportunity. (It's like he stands outside it, wondering why he's in it.)
This is a shame: Eisenberg is an intelligent, fascinating actor, and he deserves better than being confused with Mark Zuckerberg. So I thought I'd bring back one of Grierson's and my old conceits at The Projector, our Fixer column, in which we tried to offer practical advice to actors whose work we admired but whose careers appeared to be stuck. (Examples: Gwyneth Paltrow, Anna Faris, Harrison Ford, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Mel Gibson.)
His name's the Wolf. He solves problems. Here's how to fix your career, Jesse.
1. Work only with great directors. (Yeah, groundbreaking advice, I know.) The reason The Social Network is so great is not because Aaron Sorkin wrote it. It's because David Fincher, far more than his writer, deeply identifies with Mark Zuckerberg (or "Mark Zuckerberg," since everyone seems to have forgotten that Sorkin pretty much just made a bunch of shit up). He's a cold literalist surrounded by people who are just so emotional about everything. The key to Eisenberg's performance was not just Zuckerberg's utter disdain for those he felt were beneath him, but the fact that his director sort of agreed with him and encouraged Eisenberg to follow that to its logical conclusion: a guy who can only be with himself. Eisenberg has a certain shtick, and when a director isn't fully engaged and staying on him (as much fun as Eisenberg is in To Rome With Love, Woody Allen doesn't do much beyond letting Eisenberg riff), it can calcify into the familiar. He needs to be constantly challenged.
2. Think more action. The Social Network was Eisenberg's best performance, but he's never been more fun than in Zombieland. Eisenberg kills, like, a ton of zombies in that movie. (Double Tap!) There is no wimpy, sniveling dork in that movie; he's like Michael Cera with a shotgun. Eisenberg is cerebral, but it doesn't mean his movies have to be. 30 Minutes Or Less was a good idea that just didn't work, but the upcoming Now You See Me, in which he plays an illusionist bank robber (sure!), has potential. Played correctly, Eisenberg could have legitimate Nicolas Cage-in-The Rock possibilities—the nerd who bucks up and kicks ass when he has to.
3. Stop being the lead. As good an actor as Eisenberg is, he feels a bit misplaced as the lead of movies. He's relatable and likable, but that's about it: The days of Dustin Hoffman types as big-shot leading men are over. I'm not saying he has to start taking Kevin Smith in Live Free or Die Hard roles—the dork at the computer in (yes) his mom's basement who helps out our brawny hero—but you can make an argument that Eisenberg would benefit from a little less screen time. Maybe he's the quirky-but-innocent man wrongly accused in a legal thriller? Maybe he's the more-interesting-than-you'd-usually-find best-friend character in a romantic comedy? Maybe he's the neurotic agent in a sports film? (He might have been perfect for Jonah Hill's role in Moneyball.) Point is: Less is more.
4. Actually, just flat-out play the villain. Everyone already knows Eisenberg is smart. A megalomanical supervillain might be just the right play. Think, say, Eric Bogosian in the second Under Siege film. He doesn't need to actually fight much to be a convincing criminal mastermind; it's not like Heath Ledger had a ton of battle scenes as The Joker. Shame that Chris Nolan's done with the Batman franchise—Eisenberg might have been an ideal unconventional Riddler.
5. You are not the idealized version of aging writer-directors' younger selves. Stop encouraging them. This might be the big one. Every elderly baby boomer likes to imagine he was just like you when he was your age: smarter than everyone else, romantically winsome, good-hearted, innocent, naive but still wise. The Woody Allen thing is actually a bit of a problem; he was a little too perfect. Woody even said it himself: "Jesse is urban and very much like me. I would have played that part [in To Rome with Love] like Jesse. Maybe not as well because he's got that fast, very skilful delivery, but Jesse could play characters that I play very, very effectively." Let's just say this: "Playing parts that Woody Allen would play, only better" is not necessarily where you want to be, longterm. Being pigeonholed like that is how you become the guy no one is surprised to see in a yurt. It's probably time for Eisenberg to muscle up: Nobody likes a piano prodigy.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.