Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Movie Web Monday: Jack Black

Movie Web Monday: Each week, I'll look at a specific actor's roles across three good movies. The third movie will in turn tie into the first movie of the next week's actor, whose third movie will continue the pattern. I will go through actors and movies at this rate, with the following limitations in mind: every movie(or television show) invoked will be one I either own, or wish to own; no movie or actor will be invoked twice. So sit back and enjoy as you fall into the nerdery's movie web. (Oh, and I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, telling you just enough to know if you'll enjoy the movie)

Jack Black: Chris Farley for the Twenty-First Century

It's not exactly sage to compare Jack Black and Chris Farley, two overweight actors who have distinctive physical comedy styles and generally play the same or similar role in all their movies. But where Chris really dialed in the physicality of his work, Jack Black has done a good job of throwing in subtlety into his roles as well. And, while he hasn't really dived into the dramatic pool yet, it's fun to see him dip his toes in with some movies that feel much more diverse than Chris Farley's.

Movie: Nacho Libre (Own it)

Last week I explained that Nacho Libre isn't for everyone. Part of that verdict is the cultural nesting--being a movie about Mexican wrestling culture, there's certainly a broad demographic that won't get it. Jack Black gives one of his more goofy performances in the film, but the childishly lovable quality that he imbues Ignacio with helps to sell the silliness. And the genuine, if farcically simplistic, nature of his faith makes for a lot of surprising charm. For me, one of the biggest laughs comes when Ignacio (or Nacho, as he is more frequently invoked) explains to his self-proclaimed atheist partner that he's a liability for their match with the "Devil's Cavemen":

The lame, uncultured delivery sets a wry tone as the man of the cloth sneaks up on his gaunt teammate and ninja-baptizes him in a basin of water. Throughout the film, his childish spirituality comes out in silly little quips--especially regarding his crush on a cute nun, whom he flirts with using second-grade overtures. In a movie with fart jokes, stylized wrestling matches, and weaponized corn-on-the-cob, it's nice to have contrastingly subtle humor stemming from internal conflict and character definition.

Movie: School of Rock (Own it)

While Nacho Libre is a movie of particular tastes, School of Rock has much more mass appeal--and much of that can be fairly attributed to Jack Black's perfectly synched charisma, which plays off the rock-centric plot and interacts with the great kid actors well. Jack Black plays Dewey Finn, a perpetual slacker coping with getting kicked out of his band by posing as his substitute teacher roommate to earn money. In the process, he enlists a classroom of private school kids to form a rock band fit for his modest ambitions. Black hits all his usual notes here, ad libbing musical numbers throughout and looking dreadfully intense while cracking one-liners, but in School of Rock it works better than anywhere else. Part of the mass appeal of this film is how mild it is--Dewey eventually teaches his class about the 'values' of Rock* as he identifies them, and they come down to sterilized anti-party messages about standing up for yourself and being a care-free person. This candy-coated heart is adorably clear in the middle of the movie when Dewey tries to teach the class a lesson about Rock that is really geared towards one child he'd seen being dressed down by his father. Asserting that Rock is about "sticking it to the man," he polls the kids on what problems they have and how they feel about it, which composes a quick little song:

While Dewey is teaching the kids an ostensibly deviant lesson, the irony is that he's imbuing the private school shut-ins with the real keys to success. The scrubbed clean Rock is really a coping tool for dealing with failure, hostility, and goal-setting in Dewey's life, and as the film progresses, it becomes the same for the kids, too. Effort and action become more important than success to the pressured youths. They embrace the emotional frustrations they have with their parents, defusing the hostility through healthy confrontation. And the exhilaration of the concert gives the kids an outlet where they become responsible for the fulfillment of their own projects. It's got PSA class with a great Rock soundtrack and a toothlessly counter-cultural vibe, so you can appreciate the film without comprehending any of Jack Black's copious music references. And the cast of kids, with Jack Black as the kinetic shepherd, is well-rounded throughout.

Note to casting directors: James Hosey is a perfect young Tony Curran.

*Rock here is capitalized as it is Dewey Finn's own personal deity of wholesome youth culture.

Movie: Envy (Own it)

Jack Black may be the co-star of Envy, but his presence in the film is a distant second to Ben Stiller's typical twitchy, stuttering comedy. With Black playing a dreamer named Nick Vanderpark, Envy depicts two best friends and family men who have to cope with greed and jealousy when Vanderpark markets a doodoo-disintegrator called Vapoorize and gets absurdly rich in the process. Vanderpark's wealth and eccentricity is the driving force of the film, but he's surprisingly played mildly on screen. Instead, he plays a fairly normal, if attention-challenged, husband and father who goes on a garish spree when he turns out to be filthy rich. Jack Black gets no outlet for his usual hyperactive physicality, and he makes do with only one underplayed musical scene.

Of course, the whole premise of the magical macguffin is a cornerstone of the humor, and Vapoorize is invoked in various ways works really well, as you can tell from the first time Nick spins the idea to his best friend:

Jack Black's wild-eyed, nasal delivery of this and many other lines helps to make this farce feel like one of those classic comedies governed by cartoon physics. It could be any number of Chevy Chase's comedies from the last quarter of the twentieth century, complete with over-wrought plots, wild developments, and episodic plot structure. And Jack Black is perfect, if a little unusual, in the role of the entrepreneur-turned-walking-eyesore--outlining it with a spacey detachment that prevents you from looking too hard at the outlandish and horrible plot developments of this wacky film.

Movie Web Monday will continue next week with a new actor, picking up with some other prolific player from the last movie listed above.

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