Yes, many people are already writing their Top 10 movie lists for 2012. We're saving ours for the last week of the year, but while we wait for this full, rich, and weird movie year to end, we're going to start looking back at certain highlights. Tuesday, we looked at performances this year that have been forgotten too soon. Today, we look at the ones that are best forgotten as soon as possible.
Blake Lively, Savages
The novel Savages is an addictive crime story, one that seems to be feverishly trying to grab your attention away from that iPhone and is willing to yank your eyeballs out of your head and smash them against the page if it has to. (The Times review got it right: "[It] fuse[s] the grave and the playful, the body blow and the joke, the nightmare and the pipe dream ... It's flippant and dead serious simultaneously.") The center of that novel is O, a surfer-girl stoner who's in love with two men and, like the book she's in, is somehow both bubble-headed and whip-smart.
I thought of her as a younger version of Bridget Fonda's character in Jackie Brown, the center of the plot but not quite of the plot. It's a tricky part to play, and in Oliver Stone's movie version of the book, Blake Lively gets it all wrong. It's not that she's bad or anything; her line readings aren't wooden, and she never reaches late-stage Lindsay Lohan levels of mockability. It's just that she takes this role all seriously: I'm downright honored to be in a movie by Mr. Oliver Stone, sir, and doggone it, I'll do my best.
So while the actors around her are camping it up like they're in a Ryan Murphy series, having a terrific time—Salma Hayek seems to be constantly suppressing a giggle, and there's an excellent chance Benicio del Toro is talking to himself for half the film—Lively plays it straight, as if this isn't a big crazy California drug movie. She needs to be light on her feet, even a little removed from the action, the same sort of hyper-consumer, none-of-this-is-real space cadet O. is in the book.
But Lively doesn't have that gear: She just knows to look concerned when she's kidnapped, sexy when she's wearing a dress, heavy-lidded when she's stoned. She's too sincere for this part—I'd love to have seen what someone like Elizabeth Olsen, or even Juno Temple, would have done with it—and it brings the whole movie crashing down with it. Savages needs to be gritty and weird and loopy and subversive, but it keeps being reined in by its star, who thinks, for some reason, that this is a real movie.
Zach Galifianakis, The Campaign
When Zach Galifianakis became a movie star thanks to The Hangover, he was already a successful alt-comedy standup who for years had been working in the margins on short-lived talk shows (Late Show With Zach) and cult series like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. His talent was for playing unnervingly strange people who didn't care if you laughed or not, a make-you-squirm strategy that reached its apex with Two Ferns. For the mass-appeal project of The Hangover, he didn't change his off-kilter persona one bit for The Hangover, which made his success all the more gratifying.
Since The Hangover, Galifianakis still hasn't let fame change him, but I'm not sure that's been such a good thing. He's quickly becoming Hollywood's go-to oddball, picking up lame parts and getting rapidly less enjoyable to watch.
That was apparent this summer in The Campaign, where he's Marty Huggins, a small-town rube courted by some evil Koch-like brothers into running against popular Senator Cam Brady (Will Ferrell), whose marital infidelities have made his reelection far from a sure thing. Marty is meant to be a likeable doofus whom the community will prefer to the out-of-touch, arrogant Cam, but as Galifianakis plays him, Marty is a complete weirdo: a wimpy, effeminate nobody with a squeaky voice who, as A.O. Scott said perfectly, is "just a wife and two sons away from being an egregious gay stereotype." As a bizarre caricature, maybe it works, but what Galifianakis doesn't seem to understand is that the more peculiar he makes Marty, the more impossible it is to believe the premise of the movie he's in. Even when Marty's handlers put him in suits and give him slick talking points, Galifianakis keeps playing him as broadly and "quirky" as possible. Why? Oh, just ‘cause.
When his characters operate in their own odd little universe in service to a great script—which the first Hangover had—then Galifianakis can give everything around him an air of unpredictability. But in something like The Campaign, it feels like Galifianakis is mostly trying to amuse himself, to the determent of the rest of us. You're not in on the joke, but stuck on the outside, getting progressively more annoyed by the self-indulgence.
That's one of the tenets of the style of anti-humor that guys like Galifianakis prefer, playing with the conventions of traditional comedy by refusing to give you the mindless setup-then-punch-line routine that you're used to. But watching The Campaign, I didn't get any sense Galifianakis was a threat to the underlying principles of the project. I just saw a guy flaunting his shtick, trying to convince himself he wasn't wasting his time in a mediocre mainstream Hollywood comedy.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.