By Cameron Cook | Editor-In-Chief Published: 07/22/2013 12:15 pm EST
I saw Pacific Rimthis past weekend, and I mostly enjoyed it for its exuberance. Guillermo Del Toro is famously excited about huge-scale fantasy and science fiction, and he’s delivered one of the best examples of the two in several years with his newest giant-robots-fight-giant-monsters-epic. However, as I’ve read other critics’ opinions on the film, I’ve continued to run into a major discrepancy: some critics love the performances in the film, and other critics find them absolutely horrible.
It’s a bit of a shock to see critics at such odds with such a major point of an otherwise lauded film.
Some say that the universally beloved Idris Elba plays his Bill-Pullman-From-Independence-Day moments a little too grandiose, while others find his larger-than-life delivery a perfect fit for the context of the film. However, in the same breath, Rinko Kikuchi has been praised for her wide-eyed portrayal of a robot-controlling wunderkind in the film, utilizing the same broad-stroke acting techniques as her peers in the film.
What’s the difference between these performances? This kind of story always calls for a no-nonsense general and a character with a childlike sense of wonder. Del Toro, with his seemingly infinite supply of street-cred in the movie business, was able to hire two of the most respected actors we’ve got to fill those obligatory roles. However, Elba’s bombastic delivery has mostly been labeled a misfire. Why?
One could argue that bad acting is almost always a product of bad writing. Look at something like The Happening. Mark Wahlberg’s performance was panned by every critic and moviegoer who saw him in it, but we all know that Mark Wahlberg is not an inherently bad actor. We’ve seen him excel most of the time, even offering up great performances in mediocre films–Four Brothers, anybody? No, Wahlberg was not doing a bad job in The Happening, he was doing his best with lousy writing and over-confident direction.
Wahlberg played the role with a comedic edge, yet Shyamalan directed the film with outright horror in mind. Since the actor and the director were on different pages, Wahlberg’s performance was deemed a bad one.
But not all bad performances are just good performances in the wrong context. Look at this example.
With that example in mind, you may see that some performances just don’t make sense in any context.
While the first question we should ask when judging any performance is context-related (is this performance suitable for the film the director seems to intend?), the second question is whether the actor can fully embody what the writer envisioned for that character. Philip Haldiman’s portrayal of Denny in The Room may be an extreme example, but it’s really a common problem. Denny is supposed to be a young boy who the audience can sympathize with. He’s made bad choices, and now he regrets those choices in an emotionally explosive way. It’s pure drama.
However, Haldiman plays the scene whiny. He’s too angry. He’s using a falsetto voice to sound younger. His techniques are too obvious for viewers, and so we understand his behavior as false.
Like Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves displays in Boogie Nights, as she performs a scene for the cameras, a bad actor doesn’t know what to do with his/her hands. It’s a performer not understanding the motivations and the context for that character’s actions. When we can see the actor trying to embody a character through obvious gesturing, we’ve lost our suspension of disbelief.
Obvious gesturing and broad performance are the most common symptoms of what people call a “bad performance”.
This is why movies made before Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, and Robert DuVall popularized minimalistic acting in the sixties are often derided by younger viewers as unrealistic.
It’s not that Robert Mitchum was a bad actor in The Night of the Hunter, or that Charlie Chaplin was too emotive in The Gold Rush. It’s that, in that time, minimalism isn’t what audiences reacted to. Nuanced performances were still around (look at Lillian Gish’s performance, also in The Night of the Hunter), but, at that time, people were more used to the Robert Mitchum method of acting.
In the window between the advent of the motion picture and the realization that minimalistic performances picked up better on screen than on the stage, audiences preferred what we’d call an over-the-top performance.
The emotional and physical stakes of a motion picture are usually heightened, so why can’t the performances be heightened in the same way?
In the sixties, when Gene Hackman finally started to get work in film, his characteristic minimalism was often cited as boring by his contemporaries. “He’s not even acting,” is a phrase Hackman says he heard in his early days.
Eventually, however, the minimalistic style became the norm as the seventies, the decade of the auteur, took over. Performances like Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone (even though Pacino has been cited as a near-constant offender of overacting, his early work is actually very nuanced) and Kris Kristofferson’s James Averill became the standards for which leading men followed.
Over-the-Top performances, like the iconic starring roles of Jimmy Stewart’s best-known roles in It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, are often regarded as old-fashioned, even in the current cinematic landscape. That’s why we’ll see Daniel Day-Lewis get an Oscar for There Will Be Blood, a film featuring a truly bombastic and over-the-top performance, yet set in a time where movie-houses offered these kinds of performances. The removal of that character from our immediate experience and culture makes him easier to digest as an I-Drink-Your-Milkshake villain. Richard III offers a similar alternative for actors looking to do away with nuance. Ian McKellan’s version of the character is about as mustache-twirling as it gets, but because the source material is Shakespeare, and because the context is so crazy, we accept a performance that, in another context but with the same stakes, would be considered downright silly.
That might be why some are saying the acting in Pacific Rim isn’t up to par. Not because the performances are weak, but because, across the board, the actors aren’t all on the same page.
Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh is played with careful nuance and subtlety. Which is fine on its own, but he is inside a huge-budget, apocalyptic action movie about huge robots and even huger alien monsters. Idris Elba is actually playing the role perfectly, but he’s playing against an actor in a different movie altogether.
Charlie Day, the resident Jeff Goldblum of Pacific Rim, plays his characteristic manic nerd character with the kind of gusto one would expect for the stakes of the film. His responsibilities as comic relief are heightened because the entire universe surrounding him is heightened as well. I mean, look at Ron Perlman. Just look at him. There’s no room for nuance in this world.
So why is Charlie Hunnam so sterile? Why is he playing the movie straight, when nobody else seems to be doing it? The flaw isn’t in his performance, it’s in the context of his performance. Hunnam is emulating the great male protagonists that have come before him, like Harrison Ford, Kris Kristofferson (seriously, Heaven’s Gate guys…), Paul Newman, and even Brad Pitt, but Del Toro made the mistake of pushing ever other character as a heightened version of their real-world alternative. So much so that he’s made a good performance from a good actor look silly. And, by doing this, he’s made Idris Elba’s Shakespearean general look like a parading mess of misplaced emotion.
Rinko Kikuchi seems to be the only one that comes through unscathed, only because she is given a character that has most of her emotional beats take place as a different actor, through flashback, standing in front of a giant crab-monster.
Cameron Cook has been obsessed with, and haunted by, films of all kinds ever since that weird, singing fish jumped out of that pond in The Brave Little Toaster. Now he's all grown up, educated in the ancient art of writing and telling stories, and he's still wondering whose idea that fish was. What he does know is how to find a good writer, and he's spent his life working his way toward CultureMass.