Was Elizabeth Banks an It Girl? (Also, is It Girl a sexist thing to be called?) I ask because being one-time It Girls (and there are very few multi-time It Girls) often find themselves in precarious positions, career-wise, whereas It Dudes can usually either find a superhero to play or gain some weight and become character actors. Banks has been kicking around Hollywood long enough that she featured in the first Spider-Man movie and its sequels, playing the perpetually (cinematically) underappreciated Betty Brant, and has done her time as love interests (Role Models; Definitely, Maybe; Invincible) as well as some all-out comedy (Wet Hot American Summer; Zack and Miri Make a Porno) and more genre-y fare (Slither; The Uninvited). Funny, versatile, and game, she’s nonetheless only appeared in big hit movies in supporting or bit parts. Unequivocal leads for her are rare, and her most recent vehicle, last summer’s Walk of Shame, got dumped into a minimal-wide release.
In the process of not becoming a major movie star, though, Banks has proven herself a savvy scout of material, fighting hard for the smallish but crucial role of Effie Trinket in the Hunger Games movies and producing the a capella comedy Pitch Perfect in 2012, with a small comic role for herself. Pitch became a surprise hit in 2012 and, as was obviously hoped from at least the screenplay stage, became an even bigger deal on video and cable, where it has played approximately twice a day, every day, since summer 2013. It is probably playing on cable right now. Now the film has spawned a sequel, opening today, and Banks has stepped up to direct it—her first feature in that chair, after a couple of shorts and a segment of Movie 43 (never forget!).
As an actress, Banks combines a retro look—she sometimes appears ready to spar her way through a 50s rom-com or a 60s beach party, and in Walk of Shame she very much looks the part of her local news anchor character—with a comic elasticity. She uses her body to project playful flexibility in her 40-Year-Old Virgin bit part, or practiced poise as totalitarian presenter Effie Trinket. In the Pitch Perfect movies, she goes into sketch-comedy mode as Gail, the a capella commentator trading announcer-voice riffs with John Michael Higgins. Behind the camera, Banks performs similar shifts; Pitch Perfect 2, in which the Barden Bellas fall on hard times and have to sing-fight their way back to a new set of a capella championships while confronting looming graduation for many of their members, is less smoothly formulaic than its predecessor. Banks doesn’t always direct traffic as well as the ensemble needs; it’s not quite an Avengers or Fast and Furious case of all-star team-ups (Hailee Steinfeld reps the only new member of the team) but there are still a lot of funny performers to serve beyond the always-delightful Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson. But she zeroes in on comic set pieces, especially when showcasing her two biggest stars. And if the other gals don’t have as much to do, Banks keeps the newly minted series super female-centric—a summer movie written by, directed by, and starring women. Some guys from the first movie return almost entirely as support for the Bellas, with one Workaholics dude getting a slightly expanded role, mostly for the sake of Wilson’s subplot. Even the Bella’s rivals, the evil German a capella group (a touch that could’ve been a little more knowing than screenwriter Kay Cannon allows), puts a woman out front for a running gag about Kendrick’s inescapable admiration of her supposed enemy.
So Pitch Perfect 2, funny and erratic, is more of a fan reward to Pitch Perfect devotees than its own thing; that’s a fair enough excuse for some enjoyable mash-ups and Anna Kendrick bouncing off of Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele. Jason Moore, director of the previous Pitch Perfect and an executive producer here, has been named as a possibility for the next reboot of Spider-Man. Maybe Banks can get on that list, too, and finally give Betty Brant her due, in one form or another.
Even if she doesn’t wind up in the MCU after Pitch Perfect 2 outgrosses the original in a single weekend, this is a big month for Banks. She appears in a more dramatic role in Amy Berg’s Every Secret Thing, also opening this week, the first fiction feature from the director of documentaries Deliver Us from Evil and West of Memphis. It’s another unusually lady-centric production: Berg directs, Nicole Holofcener adapts the Laura Lippman novel, Frances McDormand produces, and Banks, Diane Lane, Dakota Fanning, and Danielle Macdonald star. Banks plays Nancy Porter, a detective in a small town who discovered the body of a kidnapped baby years ago. That kidnapping is glimpsed in the movie’s opening, making it clear that two tween girls, rich/pudgy Alice and poor/pretty Ronnie, were involved. Both were sentenced to seven years in prison, and now that they’ve been released, a similar disappearance of a local three-year-old arouses Porter’s suspicions. It’s a compelling hook, with Banks anchoring a strong group of actors and Holofcener authoring authentically painful scenes for them, especially early going.
Berg’s visuals, though, never sink into the story’s bones. By shooting with a combination of dim lighting, saturated colors, and shallow focus, she has an unfortunate tendency to make the movie look like it’s happening on Instagram—an aesthetically pleasing but thin reenactment. I don’t think she intended the visual scheme to dovetail with a terribly underdeveloped thread about one girl’s desire for fame and attention, but Every Secret Thing isn’t taut enough to say for sure. For a mystery/procedural, a whole lot of the sleuthing depends on direct and sometimes almost unmotivated confessions: characters conceal information until they don’t, then explain everything. It’s hard not to consider that Banks should’ve found her way into the big-studio movie version of this type of story: Prisoners, or the less pulpy Zodiac. But her summer isn’t over, anyway; she’s got Love & Mercy in June and Magic Mike XXL on the docket for July. After that, hopefully she’ll keep directing—I imagine her version of Walk of Shame might’ve bested the one that actually came out. It languished on my DVR for a couple months before I finally caught up with it this week, and it’s better than I’d heard—half-amusing for 40 or 50 minutes before it starts to drag. Banks does a lot of the heavy lifting, and the movie sparks when she manages to spend screen time with her love interest, James Marsden. They have an instinctive-looking chemistry, possibly because he’s the male her and she’s the female him: attractive, charismatic, funny, and not a movie star (incredibly, they hadn’t really shared the screen before Walk of Shame, though they do have a badge of honor in common: they were both long-standing love interests on 30 Rock, a go-to station for fulfilling comic potential). Naturally, Walk of Shame smushes them together for a one-night stand only to separate them for most of the movie: Banks plays a news anchor lost in LA, spending the hours after a hookup trying to make it back to her studio for a network audition. Spoilers ahoy: she makes it just in time to realize (with very little seeding from the movie’s slapdash storytelling) that she doesn’t necessarily want that soulless face-of-network gig anyway. Maybe Walk of Shame brought Banks herself to that point (for that matter, Marsden certainly gets a meatier role than usual in the current The D Train). When an Oscar, big hits, and her own production company gets Reese Witherspoon into Hot Pursuit, the kind of genuine stardom Banks seemed capable of hitting no longer looks quite so shiny.