Imagine a fictitious universe where everything’s just slightly off. Not way off, but just enough to notice. Tito and Latoya made it — not Michael and Janet — and U2 is fronted by The Edge, with Bono on guitar. In this world, Backstreet is on top, while N’Sync is stuck in mediocrity. In sports, our quarterbacks are offensive linemen and defensive tackles are — God forbid — kickers. Shortstops are catchers, and by now I think you get the point.
Funny thing is, such a world is slowly being created by the group of men and women — mostly men, sorry — that we regard as our elite actors and actresses. In the acting world, we’re experiencing the filmic equivalent of the invention of the forward pass, the three-point line and the penalty shot all at once — a reinvention of the game. In a game that is admittedly getting stale, where the playbook is getting played out and the players are getting tired, innovation is the name of the game, and the game is getting interesting.
We should hardly be surprised that the people who are best known for pretending to be others are now trying to reinvent themselves. Hollywood is letting us know: “We will not be typecast.”
For our generation, we probably noticed the change first with DeNiro’s reinvention as a comedian (“Analyze This,” “Meet the Parents”), Robin Williams’ movement away from slapstick and towards “melodrama” (what better way is there to describe it?), or when Al Pacino put on his new bad guys pants in “Scarface” and then in “The Devil’s Advocate.”
For more than 10 years, Denzel Washington has been more of a symbol than an actor. It has always been a complaint of mine that with Denzel Washington, you always know what you’re getting, and it’s getting old. But this week he reinvents himself as a corrupt cop in “Training Day.” Whether or not it works — and I am hearing that it does — it adds an element of surprise that will make every Denzel movie that much better from now on.
Two years ago, we saw perennial good guy Tom Cruise shed his nice guy routine to play femme fighter Frank T.J. Mackey in “Magnolia,” suggesting that just about anyone can play the switcheroo game — even those whose roles seem etched in stone.
If there’s a leader to this movement, it is Jim Carrey, who has tried harder than any to reshape himself, but we don’t seem to want to let him do that.
So, is anything sacred anymore? Probably not. In January, Tom Hanks will shock the world with his first baddie role as a hitman in “The Road to Perdition.” The title alone is enough to send any true Hanks fan into convulsions, but can you imagine anything more exciting? Whether it works or not is far from the question.
Personally, I find it hard to believe that anyone will buy Hanks as anything more dangerous than his bumbling “Big” character. He’s dangerous in China shops, but the only thing he’ll hurt is your gut, and the only thing he’ll ever break is your heart. Still, the potential is amazing, and the novelty of it all is enough for me to get shivers thinking about it now — some three months in advance.
What would your reaction have been if Brett Favre had suited up as a defensive tackle last night and, in return, Warren Sapp played quarterback for the Bucs? After concern and confusion, surely excitement would set in. Yet every time DeNiro takes a crack at comedy — which we can all admit he has met with limited, but sometimes sparkling success — he is second-guessed. Why is it that “Training Day” is met with such skepticism when we know Denzel is such a talented actor? What are we afraid of — breaking the routine?