Friday, August 2, 2013

Denzel Washington, the Last Movie Star

Posted By on Fri, Aug 2, 2013 at 11:43 AM

2 Guns movie Denzel Washington Mark Wahlberg
2 Guns: The list of sure things at the box office has farther shortened over the past few years: Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks have scaled back from mega-movies as they've aged, and their aging audience has scaled back right with them. Adam Sandler has one of the best box-office track records in the business, especially considering his effort levels, but despite the Grown Ups franchise, his comedies don't quite scale the same $140 million heights they used to, at least not every time. Tom Cruise has made a go of coming back, but even a "back" Cruise must face facts: a Tom Cruise movie is no longer $100 million in the bank. It's more like $75 million, which is nothing to sneeze at, but obviously the other side of a peak. Sandra Bullock has a decent record but hasn't racked up enough huge hits to fully qualify as the biggest star out there. Even Will Fucking Smith had his first real box-office strikeout this summer with After Earth, which made less money than his sorta-underperforming-but-kinda-overperforming-if-you-remember-they're-serious-dramas pair of Ali and Seven Pounds.

Last man standing, then, is Denzel Washington. Take a look at this guy's charts. He doesn't headline $200 million megahits (in fact, he never has), but the guy hits a solid double pretty much every single time he goes to bat. Since 1999, Washington has appeared in exactly three movies that grossed less than $50 million: two directorial efforts (Atwone Fisher and The Great Debaters) that focused on younger unknowns with Washington in supporting roles and did fine for small-scale dramas, and Out of Time, which grossed a then-respectable $41 million back in 2003 (which is $52 million in 2013 dollars). Otherwise, you put Washington in a movie (usually a thriller), and it grosses $65 million or more. What's more, the numbers have been trending up with inflation: his last four averaged close to $100 million. It's reasonable to expect 2 Guns, a rare summer movie for an actor who usually goes November/December, will vault up the list of his highest grossers (I'm guessing it'll make the buddy-action money White House Down didn't). In his wheelhouse, dude is reliable. His $80 million average for starring roles over the past 15 years or so may not be as glamorous as Cruise's 90s run—you could argue that he and Sandler have merely been demoted down to Denzel numbers post-peak—but it's probably the most consistent current record in Hollywood.

That's about what Smith, Sandler, and Cruise offer, too: they're reliable in the right movies, and it's not as if Washington has tested the waters with so much as a comedy or romance in recent years (though Flight was a serious drama, it did have some plane-crash stuff in the trailers to make it look thriller-y). But that's the thing: Washington is reliably reliable. He makes Denzel Washington movies almost every time, and people show up for them. I wouldn't mind seeing Washington exercise his movie-star muscles; he's usually either the flawed good guy or the charismatic bad guy in Tony Scott movies or Imitation Tony Scott movies. But the similarities across Unstoppable and The Taking of Pelham 123 and Inside Man and Safe House don't seem to rankle audiences as much as, say, Johnny Depp "always" doing the same (totally different) thing—and they certainly don't rankle me, even though Flight reminded everyone just how good Washington can be in a challenging role. There is something deeply satisfying and comforting about Washington's movie-star presence that somehow feels less lazy than other endlessly revived personas. In a lot of ways, he's an old-fashioned movie star in the tradition of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart: guys with a recognizable persona (and particular voice and cadence—in Grant and Stewart's case, parodied by everyone, and in Washington's case expertly and hilariously parodied by Jay Pharoah on Saturday Night Live) that they could revisit and tweak over the years. Washington doesn't just appear in potentially generic-looking movies like 2 Guns; he sells it without breaking a sweat.

Smurfs 2 movie
The Smurfs 2: Yeah, sure, the first Smurfs movie made a cool $142 million in the US and, moreover, almost half a billion more worldwide, but it couldn't match the domestic sensation of two Alvin and the Chipmunks movies, which made over $200 million each; I like to point that out to people every once in a while, just to keep the human race generally in check. We may have mastered flight and space travel and digital technology, but we do, as a race, continue to spend more than $200 million on movies about singing chipmunks. In fact, the third and least successful Chipmunks movie made about as much (in this country, anyway) as the first Smurfs picture. But the international domination of Smurfs cannot be denied, so here they are again for some more adventures that won't suffer too much when dubbed into any number of other languages, because nonsense is nonsense is nonsense. Raja Gosnell, who has somehow never directed an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie returns, because Professional Film Director Raja Gosnell returns for sequels, goddammit; he returned for Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (which you may recall is an actual theatrical release and not a direct-to-DVD movie) and he's going to come back for Smurfs in Paris or whatever the hell this one is called. I like to picture Gosnell as a bitter misanthrope so disenchanted with humanity that he can only bear to work on movies where as many characters as possible are created in post—or possibly that his experience with human sundrop Drew Barrymore making Never Been Kissed was so deeply sour that he swore off human movie stars forever, which explains his two-movie stint with Freddie Prinze, Jr.

The Spectacular Now movie
The Spectacular Now: This young-adult romance has garnered rave reviews and it sounds lovely, though credited screenwriting duo Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber give me pause, because they wrote (500) Days of Summer, the kind of quirky indie-ish movie often acknowledged for its screenplay even though its screenplay is by far the worst thing about it (see also: Little Miss Sunshine). I actually like Summer fine, but despite, not because of, its smug screenwriter conceits about relationships and how the world works. I fear something similarly fake and cutesy from Spectacular Now, but it's based on a novel so hopefully that provided some guideposts keeping the writers from, say, inventing a ridiculous and pseudo-satirical non-job at a greeting card company, just for the sake of pretending this made-up job that looks insanely easy and lucrative is the epitome of soul-crushing, and simultaneously giving off the vibe that the creators of this non-job have maybe never worked a day in their lives. You know, just as an example. Spectacular Now stars Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller, who are both charming but may be falling victim to that new Hollywood thing where you play a teenager for a Zachery Ty Bryan length of time just as a matter of course. For now, though, they can luxuriate in their approximation of youth and play teenagers in love—which, frankly, is probably one of the more fun things to do as an actor.

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