In a piece about good acting in bad movies he wrote last year, A.O. Scott suggested that “You might almost say that greatness shows itself precisely in the discrepancy between the performance and the material.” It's in keeping with this notion that we've decided to highlight some of 2012's overachievers, not all of them actors, who provided bright spots in otherwise disappointing movies.
It's worth pointing out that, in the process of putting this together, my definition of “disappointing” became somewhat fluid: I actually liked two of these movies, for instance, but nevertheless felt that both had aspects that almost seemed better than the film they were a part of deserved. Here are my picks:
Guy Pearce, Lockout
Don't get me wrong: Lockout is totally decent B-grade action and I genuinely enjoyed it — mostly thanks to Pearce. His performance is, as the saying goes, above and beyond the call of duty: nearly every one of his pithy one-liners lands, and there are so many of them that actual plot developments become secondary to his inevitable comments on them. The wisecracking action hero is nothing new, of course, but Pearce's take on the archetype balances self-aware jokiness with sincerity so deftly that it turns the generic material he's working with into something worthwhile.
At times Lockout appears poised to ironically detach itself from its own proceedings as a sort of defense mechanism — after all, you can't really call a movie bad if it's aiming for “so bad it's good” territory — but Pearce always manages to bring it back in a way that actually makes the film better. We've reached a point where, best attempts of The Expendables notwithstanding, Jason Statham may be the only action hero we have left. It's unlikely that Pearce wants to step into that role, but maybe he should.
Like Lockout, Ted isn't a bad movie so much as a familiar one that's nevertheless good for some laughs. Rather unlike Lockout, however, its CGI is exemplary. The eponymous talking teddy bear's movements appear as fluid and lifelike as Gollum's did in Lord of the Rings, so much so that it at times seems odd for the filmmakers to have put so much effort into such a by-the-numbers bromance.
The animation in, say, John Carter was on an equally high level, but there it was expected — high-concept blockbusters live and die on the strength of their visuals, whereas Ted could probably have gotten away with much less polished CGI. Its $50 million budget certainly helped in this department and, barring any disasters, this low-hanging-fruit comedy was probably destined for box office glory regardless. Even so, corners are so often cut in films of this sort that it's worth pointing out when they aren't.
Brit Marling, Sound of My Voice
As with Marling herself, Sound of My Voice showed promise. A stripped-down thriller about an enigmatic cult leader not played by a grisly middle-aged dude (see Martha Marcy May Marlene, every cult movie ever), it highlighted not only Marling's acting chops but also the same commitment to writing and developing her own projects she first displayed in last year's Another Earth.
None of this was enough to prevent the final product from feeling like a hastily thrown together one-off, though. Sound of My Voice gives the impression of having been both thought up and made by a talented group of up-and-comers with a decidedly indie M.O. whose ideas worked better on paper than they do onscreen. But Marling, in both writing and portraying her character, adds a certain nuance to the tired trope she's embodying: physical frailty at odds with her mental domineering and a time-traveling backstory that's almost convincing at times. This wasn't enough to save Sound of My Voice, but it did provide an otherwise forgettable movie with something memorable.
Paul Giamatti, Cosmopolis
David Cronenberg bringing a Don DeLillo book to the silver screen had no reason not to be the most rewarding literary/cinematic union since the Coen Brothers made their Best Picture-winning adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. The innovative Canadian auteur known for Videodrome, Crash (probably not the one you're thinking of), Eastern Promises and a slew of other art-house classics was slowly transitioning from a focus on the body to one on the mind, with DeLillo's heady prose presenting a fitting means of doing so.
But one of the most consistently entertaining aspects of DeLillo's writing — the dialogue — wound up being the most stilted onscreen. Cosmopolis mostly consists of its intimidatingly talented cast (which includes Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and, yes, Robert Pattinson) giving wooden recitations of their hilarious lines. Only each actor holding his or her script in hand would have made the proceedings feel more poorly staged, a failure that, considering how many offenders there are, can only really be attributed to Cronenberg.
Cosmopolis's vast potential makes it far and away the biggest letdown on this list, but it does have one saving grace: Paul Giamatti's third-act appearance as the man who wants to kill the protagonist. Only here does the dialogue have any real verve to it; if only every other performance were as manically spirited.
Katy Perry's “Firework,” Rust and Bone
One would expect Rust and Bone's best scenes to consist of Marion Cotillard doing something ultra-dramatic and tear-jerking. That's true to an extent, but in both cases the scene's success is actually owed mostly to Katy Perry's 2010 mega-hit, with French filmmaker Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) employing the song as a surprisingly poignant reflection of his double-amputee heroine's many travails.
First heard during a performance by Cotillard's orca trainer character at a Sea World-like park that ends up costing the character her legs in a freak accident, Perry's chart-topper later returns as the now-debilitated woman mimes her old moves in a melancholic reminder of better days — and perhaps future ones as well. In the latter case especially, the pop tune provides a sort of sugarcoated emotional resonance that's sorely lacking in most of the scenes where it's most needed.