Take the lead

Tom Hanks got bored winning Oscars a while back, and ventured into quasi-experimental territory. Jim Carrey simply grew tiresome. Tom Cruise completely lost his shit, and I think Jack Nicholson died five years ago. Meanwhile, the Philip Seymour Hoffman types (talented folk who simply don’t possess “the look”) just aren’t marketable enough for the A-list. And others — Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, DeNiro, Pacino, etc. — watch their box office totals decrease (the new Indiana Jones excluded, as it already possessed a built-in franchise following) as their ages increase.

Unless Will Smith can star in every major studio picture between now and the end of eternity — don’t rule it out; he has saved the world on more than one occasion — the status of Hollywood’s leading men is somewhat dire.

That is, of course, unless studio-made stars like funnyman (if you can call him that) Dane Cook are the solution.

Now before we continue, let me add that I — unlike others in the media — don’t hold a personal vendetta against Cook. Sure, he’s rich, good-looking, and could probably swipe my wife in the span of an hour or so, but I don’t begrudge him. By most accounts, he is a cordial, good-natured, dedicated comedian who caught a few lucky breaks on his way to becoming the most popular stand-up comic not named Chris Rock. Hell, he has even turned in a couple of semi-memorable screen performances — the vastly underrated Waiting… being foremost among them. So I’ll say it again — I don’t hate Dane Cook, even if I find his comedy a tad bit hacky and predictable. Rather, I hate the idea of Dane Cook. I loathe how he — among numerous others (more on them in a bit) — was cherry-picked for cinematic-leading-man status by a group of middle-aged studio heads not because he was particularly funny — or because he brought much of anything to the table, for that matter — but because of his
physical traits.

The 36-year-old Cook — whose latest flick, My Best Friend’s Girl (co-starring Kate Hudson and Jason Biggs), opened September 19 — is young and marketable enough, and caters almost exclusively to that prized 18-34 demographic — those more prone to purchasing iPhones and flat-screen television sets. He is also easy on the eyes, which, as anyone who’s studied the history of stand-up comedy knows, is a rare feat (see Cross, David, and Oswalt, Patton).

I mention all of this because Cook is but one of many examples of movie studios’ tried-and-true technique of taking a marketable – yet somewhat unproven — commodity and attempting to turn him into a profit-making machine. In the case of Cook, whose latest film had only modest box-
office returns, that method isn’t yet money well spent. None of the major releases in which he has played a major role — lowlighted by a paltry $28 million domestic gross for the Jessica Simpson flop Employee of the Month — have grossed more than $50 million domestically.

Not that Cook is alone in his box-office floundering.

Studio-made movie stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (a modest $41 million per picture headlined since 2003), Jason Statham (a meager $31.4 million per picture headlined over the past five years), and Ashton Kutcher (who has yet to crack the fabled $100-million barrier in a starring role, despite teaming with fellow Hollywood heavyweights like Cameron Diaz and the late Bernie Mac) have been rather inconsistent at the box office. Yet, for all their mild successes and staggering failures, I don’t blame this new breed of leading men. Sure, Kutcher is an insufferable, cougar-humping hipster; Cook is simply a less talented, more annoying Carrey; and the Rock/Statham action combo doesn’t exactly recall the storied days of Schwarzenegger/Stallone.

No, I blame the movie studios, who not only shell out top dollar for unproven talent, but also cram said talent down the moviegoing public’s throat via advertisements, MySpace blasts, and repetitive promotional appearances. Fortunately, studios haven’t exhausted their pool of resources just yet.

Foreign-born stars like Clive Owen (always top-notch, even in shit movies) and Christian Bale have unlimited potential, as evidenced by Bale’s recent turn in a little low-budget indie hit called The Dark Knight. Seth Rogen and James Franco, of Pineapple Express fame, are on the rise, even if neither has proven viable outside his particular wheelhouse – stoner flicks for Rogen, supporting roles for Franco. Heath Ledger was the most talked-about movie star of the summer, but um …

Robert Downey Jr. had a good summer, but two hit films, one of which — Tropic Thunder — was only a supporting role, hardly solidifies bankable leading-man status. Steve Carell is likable as all hell, even if one can’t help but doubt his movie star prospects when his sitcom, The Office, only averages about 8 million viewers per episode (the 77th-ranked show on television last season, The Office has never finished a season higher than 67th in the ratings).

And Shia LeBeouf — whose actioner Eagle Eye opens September 26 — has a solid run of hits going (expect Eagle Eye to fare well also), even if his frequent onscreen appearances of late (five films in the last 18 months) might soon give way to audience fatigue. After all, oversaturation in today’s blog-driven celebrity age simply paves the way for unbridled disdain.

Which brings me back to Dane Cook.

Although My Best Friend’s Girl had a lackluster opening (earning $8.3 million as the number-three box-office draw) he’s not likely to bat an eye. He’s long since collected a fat check for the film, regardless of its box-office tally, and already has other films in varying stages of development. And so what if the guy anchors a film about as well as Sarah Palin sustains political credibility? Movie studios don’t seem to mind. Why should we? •

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