Thursday, February 11, 2016

Theory Thursday: Benedict Cumberbatch is Overrated

Benedict Cumberbatch in Zoolander No. 2
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Zoolander No. 2 is released in theaters nationwide.
Theory: Benedict Cumberbatch is overrated.

Scene from The Imitation Game

A few months back, there were a lot of complaints over director Ben Stiller's upcoming film Zoolander No. 2. It was over the portrayal of a "trans" character named All, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. With shaved eyebrows and androgynous features, there was concern over his character being a scathing insult to the LGBT community. While the idea of throwing up a petition to ban a movie solely for an unexplained joke is itself a terrible joke, I feel like I need to come clean with something that has probably been detectable for years now, though I have never directly addressed. What I am about to say comes more from a miscommunication regarding the hype of an actor more than his perceived talent, but even then I have trouble seeing what everyone else sees in Cumberbatch.

I accept that there's actors out there who get by on British charm. It's a trope that has been rich in cinema going back to the beginning. They are, after all, more charming and whose accents hint at a sense of superiority. It's the reason that these celebrities tend to outweigh the American counterpart (other than the American media just being more about assaulting dignity). As someone who tries to go into film criticism without bias, it is sometimes hard to understand this favoritism that has thankfully evened out. Still, you get those few names that become icons for whatever reason, and you wonder "What's so special about them?" In all honesty, everyone has their good and bad. Few of these actors aren't without merit. Still, I don't get Cumberbatch.

To clarify my relationship to his filmography, I have seen a large chunk of his work, going back to the great Atonement and most specifically post-2010, starting with one of his rare comic feats in Four Lions. To be honest, a reason that I don't understand the appeal of Cumberbatch is because I don't recognize his presence. When discussing with a friend about the actor prior to the release of The Fifth Estate, he explained why that was. He has an unmemorable face and is rather droll. The fact of the matter is that by the point of this conversation, I had seen half a dozen roles with him, and I couldn't tell you the first thing of his character. I'm even talking about War Horse, where he had a significant role. To me, he never had a presence worthy enough to call him "great" as it were.

Before I go further, there is the obvious thing to note. All actors start off in small work and get more noticeable. I understand that. Following that conversation about The Fifth Estate, I was able to notice him more often when I watched Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or August: Osage County. I could critique him in an attempt to understand his "appeal." It could be that he throws his entire talent into Sherlock (which I haven't seen), but those roles would be called adequate in other people's hands. All he does is speak sternly and limits his emotional range in order to emphasize character better. It could work as intimidation but, as Star Trek Into Darkness showed, Cumberbatch's menacing side isn't all that menacing either. He was good, but you never got the sense that he reinvented the Khan character that Ricardo Montalban perfected decades earlier. He just stared at Spock and Kirk and talked in that low tone.

If it sounds like I am picking on his subpar work, it isn't intentional. I am merely trying to understand the appeal, and I am mostly commenting on his popular works, of which I am sure bigger fans will be eager to defend. For all I know, there is someone out there who finds his take on Khan to be far more exceptional than I. For me, both Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine out-act Cumberbatch (though it could just be that they're more believable in their roles). If you're offended by my choice to talk about his supporting roles, then what exactly am I supposed to be recognizing him for? A great actor can compliment his co-stars. While I think that Cumberbatch does it well enough, that's all he really does for me. There's nothing *exceptional* about his work.

To give a comparison that I feel is apt, one could easily look at Gregory Peck. True, his career is far more established than Cumberbatch's, but consider the traits that they share. Both feature an undermined silent leader persona, meant to show power with no more than a glare and a deep voice. For the sake of argument, I will tackle Peck's To Kill a Mockingbird performance, which is just as tight lipped as Peck ever was. You buy into his convictions because there's a sense of purpose in being the upright citizen. The way he speaks bluntly about racism to his daughter is frank and effective, letting the naivety of the child ring more true than anything he actually says. Even in the courtroom scenes, he shows a passion that allows for a few standout moments, reflecting a pinnacle in courtroom drama that's up there with Young Mr. Lincoln or A Few Good Men. Peck gives his all without breaking a sweat, and that's the magic of his charisma that he also showed in Gentleman's Agreement and Twelve O'Clock High

Now tell me, what is Cumberbatch's To Kill a Mockingbird performance? Where am I supposed to be impressed by his resistance? Where are those few career-defining outbursts? I honestly cannot think of one in any of the films that I have listed so far. While I love 12 Years a Slave and like his character's nobility, it is still a thankless role that is overshadowed by Michael Fassbender (who I feel is destined to be one of this generation's greatest actors), whose eccentric, ill-tempered performance is an astounding milestone in a career that's already full of them. I think that he's good here, but by no means a career-defining performance.

If one is to judge quality by Oscars, the final bet is to go with The Imitation Game, for which he received his sole Best Actor nomination. It's a story in which he played Alan Turing, who is actually a fascinating individual in real life. Mind you, it's hard for me to like this movie more on a depiction level - as I feel like it washed out Turing's interesting characteristics (such as his homosexuality, which is barely in the movie... if it is at all) and gave up on telling a more fascinating performance that I felt like Cumberbatch would've nailed. I'm talking about what serves more as the epilogue where Turing unfortunately doesn't get the respect he deserves because of his lifestyle choices. Instead, we see everyone dancing happily over one of Alexandre Desplat's best scores to date.

Speaking as I am capable of separating art from the truth, this factor wouldn't bother me had the performance been more captivating. For the most part, it is a conventional biopic in which an extraordinary man does extraordinary things. For a film about a side of the war that isn't often seen, I'm unsure why it comes across as so dull. Maybe it's because I don't buy Cumberbatch's love of gadgetry or the chemistry with Keira Knightley. It could just be that it's conventional period. However, I want to bring up the one question I have asked before: Where is that defining moment in which you stand up and say "That's an amazing performance." To be fair, you have to have that if you're wanting to be taken seriously as an Oscar nominee. To me, his restrictions and affectations are too similar to everything else he does to actually be a compelling role. As it stands two years later, I don't even remember a line of dialogue from the film as being memorable enough to justify.

In closing, I don't say this as a form of hate, but simply a misunderstanding. I want to know what's so great about Cumberbatch other than that he's a refined British actor. I don't expect the comments section to be a full conversion, but how do I manage to like him as something more than a solid supporting player? I am not expecting Zoolander No. 2 to solve this, but I would like to know so that his lingering success doesn't continue to baffle me and where even his voice in The Hobbit movies sound like generic villain fodder. There has to be something more to him, and frankly he's one of the few actors that I don't get in general. So, fire away and tell me why he's great. Until you convince me, I am going to stick to my guns and say that he's overrated.

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