September 5, 2011

Reese Witherpoon: All Smiles and Not Enough Bite

How Do You Know
 Reese Witherspoon turns insecure in How Do You Know.

In James L. Brooks’ 2010 film How Do You Know, Reese Witherspoon plays a 31-year-old woman who is left floundering when her career as a professional softball player comes to an end. Set adrift, she passively moves in with Owen Wilson’s character, a major league baseball star, then gradually gets closer to Paul Rudd, a company man who is facing indictment for fraud. Lisa may be a strong, capable athlete and leader in the beginning, but as she struggles to figure out her life, she turns to the two men to keep her afloat. The grimness of the story clues you into how inappropriate the film is as a romantic comedy, but the film doesn't have the guts to go down its darker route. At one point, Witherspoon laments, “Most girls' plan is to meet a guy, fall in love, have a baby. But I don't know if I have what it takes for everybody's regular plan.” Yet, the film follows the exact convention her character is supposedly railing against. How Do You Know was a new low in the post-Legally Blonde phase of Witherpoon’s career: the film cost 120 million to make and made a mere 30 million in the US.

Her performance in Freeway is a jaw-dropper for anyone who thinks she's a rom-com actress.

Hard to see now, but Witherspoon was once a critically adored underdog. She hit major highs, acting-wise, in the mid-1990s with 1996’s Freeway and 1999’s Election, playing respectively a white-trash teenager who shoots Keifer Sutherland’s serial killer in a campy retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, and Tracy Flick, a raging ball of furious ambition determined to shoot out of her Omaha, Nebraska roots. These are unforgettable creations, a formidable mix of the actress’ American Pie looks and crisp intelligence. Yet, for the past ten years, Witherspoon has continuously taken on roles where the intelligence she imparts is appreciated, but much less crucial than her ability to look cute and fall in love. 

Playing the Type A to end all Type As in Election.

But what’s a girl to do? Hers is an interesting career trajectory: an actress who can pull off bold, often unlikeable roles shoehorning herself into the role of the approachable star. In a 2001 Premiere cover article, before the Vogue and Vanity Fair covers started, she is depicted as so intimidating that co-star Selma Blair can’t even open her mouth around her at times. That prickliness and stubbornness has been, for the most part, glossed over in frothy comedies that instead played on her image as a smart gal: a law student in Legally Blonde, a headstrong Southern designer in Sweet Home Alabama, a workaholic doctor in Just Like Heaven.

You can’t blame her when she had much to gain by going mainstream: better paychecks, and the possibility of amassing a large audience instead of niche fans. (Why else would Kate Hudson, who was an Oscar-nominated actress ten years ago, go on to star year after year in insipid studio comedies, never flexing her presumed acting chops?) There is also her puritanical intent to portray women in only a positive light after becoming a mother. 

ElectionFreeway (Widescreen Edition)
It’s a loss -- both for her and the audience. You can’t help thinking of the roles she could have ripped into if she had fully embraced her inner Tracy Flick. You can see it in the way a slightly sour edge seeps into her roles: they betray the direction she could have taken the character. This is made all the more maddening because she is one of the handful of actresses in Hollywood who has the luxury to pick and choose her projects. 

Playing June Carter Cash in Walk the Line.

One gets the feeling that the industry wants to see her take on more substantial roles as well. When she tackled a rare rich role in 2005’s Walk the Line after a dismal attempt in 2004’s Vanity Fair, she promptly walked home with a Best Actress Oscar. She was tart and pretty as June Carter Cash too, but she also afforded herself the rare opportunity to play a woman of complexity and depth, whose decisions had devastating consequences on a man she loved.

 Walk the Line (Widescreen Edition)
Studio comedies may have once offered Witherspoon’s career some stability, but if longevity is an issue, perhaps they are no longer the way to go. Unless she raises her game, and sinks her teeth into more meaty leading roles, she may find herself relegated to the sidelines as newer funny blondes take her place. That the idea of seeing her in a supporting character role doesn’t seem too bad is a sure sign of how much Witherspoon the actress is missed.

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