Monday, November 10, 2003

Mark Ruffalo: the Manu Ginobili of American Cinema 

Mark Ruffalo is a good actor. Many people liked his unusually poignant performance as the troubled brother in You Can Count on Me. He was not just funny and winning in his humble irresponsibility, things that one often sees in those sorts of humbly irresponsible characters. There was also room for pain, memory, indignation, wistfulness, hope, and doubt within the character, all in an understated, wanting-to-please, scared kind of way. He carved something out that was new and appropriate.

A recent NY Times piece describes Ruffalo as an ascendent leading man after portraying a tough police detective in the upcoming release In the Cut, directed by Jane Campion and featuring Meg Ryan. There's all this interesting stuff about how honest and creative Ruffalo can be as an actor. How he is able to find legitimately new stuff within the craft just by using what he has without whitewashing it in the narcotic of method acting. Campion apparently pushed him here to do all of it without outwardly betraying powerlessness in a role requiring a presence close to hardboiled.

All of which makes View from the Top, the 2003 Ruffalo-Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle, so much more perplexing. This movie, I think, might never have been good. A small-town woman leaving Wal-Mart to end up as a flight attendant is not, um, scintillating. Necessarily. Paltrow's character was played earnest as it gets, and as a not too obvious parody that could be a terrific in a somewhat satisfying way. On the other hand, when Mark Ruffalo enters this film as Ted, a humorously self-deprecating nice guy, things get a little more interesting. In the second half, however, the filmakers reduce his screentime and give him bland things to say. It actually becomes a movie about a flight attendant (to be fair, there may have been plot-driven reasons for this...which makes it damning to realize that the plot should have been thrown over in order not to mess with the Ruffalo magic). Even if he is creative and unique among actors, he's got slim-pickings to work with after a while.

Perhaps it's time to say that you got to let Ruffalo be Ruffalo. You got to keep feeding him, keep going to well (to mix the food and drink.) He's bound to spin something quirky and winning. The basketball player I'd compare him to right now is Ginobili -- a guy with an unselfish, sly genius, finding new ways to get it done, coming into his own as a household name.

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