It’s happening again.
When Tobey Maguire won the iconic role of Spider-man in Sam Raimi’s webslinger trilogy, comic-book fans engaged in passionate debate. Could Maguire be the right guy to play that spectacularly split personality—geeky Peter Parker and the acrobatic Spidey?
Now, as director Marc Webb “reboots” the series, fans are scratching their heads. After heavily hyped auditions, the aptly-named Webb cast an actor who, at this writing, is still relatively unknown.
Conversations among moviegoers go something like this: “I’ve never heard of him.” “Me either. Have I seen him in anything?” “He was in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” “Right. But who saw that?” “I did. He was...strange. And British.” “He was in Lions for Lambs...but I can’t remember that movie.” “IMDB says he’s 26 years old! Peter Parker’s a high schooler!”
I suspect that those conversations are all about to change.
The young Actor in Question—whose name I am purposefully leaving out—is indeed 26. But he’s remarkably talented at playing an awkward young man. (Let’s not forget—Tobey Maguire was 26 when he played Parker!) He even played Romeo on stage in Manchester. And he has experience as a gymnast. Qualified? Yes.
But let’s not rush to acquaint ourselves with the Actor in Question.
His unfamiliarity is, for now, an advantage—he’s able to bring complicated characters to life without the audience being distracted by celebrity baggage. He’s playing major roles in two of this week’s most talked-about films. Rush out and see them both, before his Webb-slinging makes him a household name.
Because he’s really good.
Never Let Me Go
In the science fiction drama Never Let Me Go, directed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo), the Actor in Question plays Tommy, a young man who has grown up in a cloistered, controlled community of teenagers.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful science fiction novel reveals the ugly truth of their predicament slowly, developing a maddening tension. The movie spoils that by blandly announcing the details early on, leaving us to soak in the pathos of a morbid love triangle.
It’s still a wonderful film, thanks to Carey Mulligan, whose radiance is undimmed by the film’s muted colors. She plays Kathy, whose unspoken love for a sensitive, artistic boy named Tommy is complicated by Ruth, a sexy and aggressive classmate (Keira Knightley in an impressively unflattering turn).
Tommy feels like an outsider even in this isolated community. He and Kathy seem like the most human characters in the film—which becomes the story’s central irony. Their scenes together are fraught with repressed longing, enough to remind us of Ishiguro’s other book-to-screen success, The Remains of the Day. And the Actor in Question brings nuance and idiosyncrasy to Tommy’s character without reducing him to a bundle of tics.
The filmmakers deny that their movie has anything to do with present-day issues like stem-cell research, abortion, human slavery, or other current examples of exploitation and human cruelty. That’s ridiculous. Artists don’t get to say what their works inspire audiences to think about. Never Let Me Go is substantial science fiction specifically because it lends itself to many meaningful interpretations, and it gives us a prophetic reminder that we are capable of robbing the poor to fulfill our own fantasies.
But it’s even richer than that. It’s a film about artists—those who investigate what it means to be human, and whose desire to become fully human can make them feel like they’re carving out their insides, unnoticed, for the good of humankind.
Never Let Me Go is more perfect in its literary form than its cinematic manifestation. But both versions can kindle compassion, thanks to the Actor in Question, who has the most challenging role.
The Social Network
The Social Network looks likely to become the most celebrated American film of the year, with its timely commentary on the zeitgeist.
Most of the media attention is focused on the film’s merciless portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, a code-generating maestro who made a fortune by inventing Facebook, and managed to turn friends into enemies along the way. Is Zuckerberg really the monster that the movie makes him out to be?
Come on. Surely there are better questions to discuss than that.
Whatever the truth might be, director David Fincher and screenwriting genius Aaron Sorkin elevate this sordid story of success and scandal to mythic proportions. The Greek Gods of their tale are the Harvard elite, with their privilege and their parties, while their human champions who seek to earn the gods’ favor are computer programmers and website moguls trying to invent the Next Big Thing.
It should be boring as HTML. But thanks to Sorkin’s snap-crackle-and-pop screenplay, it’s a compelling drama.
As critics focus on Jesse Eisenberg’s inspired turn as Zuckerberg, or Justin Timberlake’s glamorous appearance as Napster-inventor Sean Parker, the movie that I saw belongs to the Actor in Question. While the outrageous and often-heartless antics of Zuckerberg and Parker get the attention, Zuckerberg’s conflicted partner Eduardo Saverin gives the movie its broken heart. The Actor in Question makes him a human being with a conscience, his faint light illuminating the shape of the darkness around him.
I don’t doubt that the Actor in Question will make an interesting Parker/Spidey combination. But I do doubt that I’ll be able to enjoy his work in the future the way I’m enjoying it now.
Right now, we know very little about him. He hasn’t been part of any scandal. We don’t know who he’s dating. He’s not known for political preferences or product endorsements. But when the gears of the celebrity hype machine draw him in, it will be hard to see his characters clearly.
That unfortunate process is already taking hold of Jennifer Lawrence, this year’s breakthrough actress. Lawrence deserved raves for her impressively convincing turn in Winter’s Bone. It was exciting to her treated as a respectable talent instead of a sex object. But while the film-festival buzz heated up, Lawrence flaunted her swimsuit look in an Esquire vanity video, reducing male film-bloggers to drooling lust-monkeys. Next up, she’s playing the naked shapechanger Mystique in X-Men: First Class...all but guaranteeing that her celebrity will overtake her own “mystique.”
Perhaps the Actor in Question will turn the role of the iconic webslinger into something unexpected and new. But for now, it’s a joy to see an actor who was clearly born to bring interesting characters to life, doing what he does best without the disadvantage of celebrity.
I’m going to enjoy that while it lasts.