Sunday, April 09, 2006

Smugness: Nothing a Terrible Haircut Can't Solve

I have complained, when reminded of her existence, about Natalie Portman and her characters in Closer and Garden State, who were basically the same character--perky American hometown girls trying to charm us out of our skulls with endless burts of artificial quirkiness, one more of a streetwalker than the other. I really don't even care about either of those films. I just wonder if they would have been better with a more subtle actress in Portman's role, or if they were just too weak to withstand one flawed performance.

Thank You For Smoking survives Katie Holmes' overbearing smugness because all its other performances are well-rounded. Holmes just has that mischievous smirk frozen on her face the whole time, her ears like a couple of SETI satellites searching for male victims. But luckily she doesn't have that much screen time. Christopher Buckley's characters are wild caricatures but for the most part are also vulnerable and realistic; it's innocent, subdued Cameron Bright who holds the credibility together.

That's the only cure for smugness: Overwhelm it with context and better performances. How specifically to overcome Portman's particular kind of spry smug? Subjugate her to a totalitarian government and a poetry-spewing vigilante who—holy shit!—has a mischievous smirk frozen on his face for literally the entire fucking movie! And shave her head and clothe her in burlap sacks. Stick her between the comic-book hysterics of V and the dour plodding of Stephen Rea, and she basically becomes a neutral factor.

Thank You For Smoking and V for Vendetta are both insane and entertaining at the core. That's why on the whole they don't suffer from performances by actresses who usually make me cringe.

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