' ' Cinema Romantico: (Not) In Too Deep: Jack Black

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

(Not) In Too Deep: Jack Black

Merely reaffirming that I no longer fear death, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” collected $204 million at the box office this weekend. To coincide with its enormous opening, a music video debuted of star Jack Black singing the movie’s breakout (and Oscar eligible) power ballad “Peaches.” I am less interested in the song itself, never mind the movie, god forbid, which I’m not seeing and which you don’t want me to see anyway, than I am in Black. I tend to be suspicious of the phrase Phoning It In because I generally think actors are professionals doing their level best and that what we frequently think of Phoning It In is, in fact, the director and producer(s) hanging the actors out to dry, but Black, bless his heart, could never be accused of such apathy. “Jack Black,” Spencer Hall said over the weekend in quote Tweeting the “Peaches” video uploaded by the official “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” account, “has never committed to anything at less than a rate of 150%.”

Indeed, the “Boogie Nights” recreation in last year’s “Weird: the Al Yankovic Story” in which the eponymous song parodist (Daniel Radcliffe) attends a lavish backyard pool party would have merely been that, a recreation, were it not for Jack Black elevating his Wolfman Jack impersonation into a true antagonist of young “Weird” Al. Black’s commitment to the bit is no less impressive than Radcliffe’s, the latter’s frenzied accordion playing becoming that much more hysterically triumphant because of Black’s astonished and aggrieved reaction. In Black’s brief cameo in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” (2004) where his motorcyclist drop kicks the broadcasting buffoon’s (Will Ferrell) beloved border terrier Baxter off a bridge, he is not content to just show up and play Jack Black. No, he takes the nameless character’s love of his hog as true motivation, playing him as broken-hearted as Burgundy becomes over poor Baxter.

Though “Nacho Libre” (2006) was not altogether a success, Black’s performance was, demonstrating “his deft ability to balance ludicrous flailing and flopping with affecting emotional earnestness,” as Nick Schager observed. More than that, “Nacho Libre” is a useful metaphor for Black’s career, an actor demonstrating a no holds barred devotion to the role akin to a lucha libre, blurring the line between kayfabe and motion picture acting. Black’s very first feature film role was playing a fanatical fan of Tim Robbins’s titular folk singing conservative politician “Bob Roberts” (1992) where he was already foreshadowing a gift of going just far enough in playing characters who go too far.

In roles big and small, Black was all in, whether playing the smart-alecky windbag yang to Bruce Willis’s patented weary annoyance in “The Jackal” (1997) or in his explosive “High Fidelity” (2000) supporting turn, tellingly cited by Stephanie Zacharek as “almost too painfully accurate as the most annoying species of record store geek,” such a tempest of sound opinions that by the end John Cusack resembles a bent palm tree in the hurricane belt. His concluding cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” is partially such a revelation because Black has purposely made you expect the worst. Black evangelizes for rock ‘n’ roll to an even greater and more moving extent in Richard Linklater’s brilliant “School of Rock” (2003), turning his whole performance as a (faux) schoolteacher cum frontman into an evocation of Bruce Springsteen’s famous line “learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.” Black plays Dewey Finn as believing so fully in the ministry of rock ‘n’ roll that sometimes he can’t quite see which way is up.

I do not mean to suggest that in his eternal hurricane-force commitment that Black is eternally playing roles like a hurricane. Consider “Bernie” (2011), another Linklater joint, and possibly Black’s finest turn to date as real-life Bernie Tiede, a God-fearing funeral director in East Texas who murdered his wealthy, elderly companion and didn’t get away with it yet didn’t much peeve anyone in doing it, a nigh impossible piece of acting by Black that The New Yorker’s David Denby tellingly deemed “disciplined.” If Bernie seemed to bury himself in a part so deep that people around him couldn’t quite detect whether it was a put-on, so, too, does Black bury himself in the part “in which,” Denby writes, “self-seeking and the genuine desire to be useful exist side by side.” Local DA Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) might see the truth, but the rest of us are like Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa” looking incredulously at Thurman Merman. “Are you fucking with me?!” Who knows?

Jack Black even brought his notable dedication to Hollywood’s biggest night in 2015. Those were the 87th Academy Awards, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris with an opening song and dance number alongside Anna Kendrick about The Magic of the Movie™. I know, I know, The Magic of the Movies™? Barf. But that’s where Jack Black came in, playing a disgruntled audience member who heroically butts in and ascends to the stage to refute NPH’s flattery by critiquing the entire industry right in front of the industry’s biggest bigwigs, concluding astutely, if not presciently, how flickering myths were being relocated from the big screen to screens in our jeans, belting out, over and over, “Screens in our jeans! Screens in our jeans!” so emphatically that Black plays someone burying himself so far in the part that Harris has to verbally yank him back out. 

It’s such high-caliber role-burying that her eminence, Nicole Kidman, the ultimate role-burier, sitting down front, rewards Black with a whoop. Game recognizes game.

No comments: