Thursday, October 5, 2017

Theory Thursday: In Defense of Ryan Gosling

Scene from Blade Runner 2049
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: Blade Runner 2049 opens in theaters this Friday.
Theory; Ryan Gosling is an underrated actor.

Scene from Drive
With Friday's release of director Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049, I was left with a barrage of topics that I could've written about. I could have discussed anything regarding Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, or how I am just not a fan of the original Ridley Scott movie. To say the least, there's a lot of ways that this week's conversation could've gone, but I felt in general were either predictable or a little limiting. What can you say about Ford and Leto at this point? They both have their reputations cemented, and I don't feel that I'm alone in thinking that he didn't deserve that Dallas Buyers Club Best Supporting Actor win (fun fact: that will be the subject for this week's Failed Oscar Campaigns, so more Leto talk coming in a few days). With all of this said, I felt the need to go positive this week, which is why I'm deciding to go with Ryan Gosling.

It's been tough to determine what the general consensus of Gosling is. Is he a good actor, or is he terribly one note? I get the impression that even those who liked La La Land were quick to suggest his limitations. He can't sing or dance, so why is he there alongside the clearly talented Emma Stone? That is their logic, and I actually think he's good in the movie. Still, it's the epitome of this week's Theory Thursday column. I think that Gosling is without a doubt one of the more underrated actors currently working, as he's had one of the most fascinating career arcs of the past decade. Following his Oscar nomination for Half Nelson, he worked on prestige projects with Derek Cianfrance before diving into experimental (read: isolating) cinema with Nicolas Winding Refn. In some ways, La La Land was his comeback movie after a weird period in ways that unfortunately similar talented young actors (notably Joseph Gordon Levitt) haven't been able to achieve. The fact that Gosling has roles in everything from romantic comedies to whatever Lost River was shows his versatility. 

Still, I get the vibe that most people don't like him. Back in 2011, I was one of those who became enamored by Drive. Much to my chagrin, I can't say that anyone outside of my cinephile circles agreed, and that infamous "false advertising" lawsuit came to symbolize the film's downfall. Gosling was stoic and quiet in that movie, often lampooned for not even having a dozen lines of dialogue (or so it seems). However, I maintain that he gave a great performance and one that the movie needed. Had he been more eager and lively, it would escape the mysterious aura that he possessed. He was, much like Baby Driver, a figure who was thrown into a world of corruption but was himself not supposed to be corrupt. Drive goes a lot darker and more violent, but it's in quiet ways that add a disturbing layer. This is the movie that determines how people perceive Gosling best: is he boring or charismatic?

In general, I get the vibe that nobody is seeing Blade Runner 2049 for Gosling. I can understand why, as he is a new character in an old world. Still, it's an odd thing to say for someone who came off of a major Oscar player and received a Best Actor nomination as well. This should be a bigger deal. While I'm cool with people suggesting that Roger Deakens' cinematography is the best character in the movie, it's weird how shuffled in Gosling is. Speaking as this movie is almost three hours long, that is potentially a lot of investment with one actor, and I think that some excitement should be had with Gosling being that man. In a world full of replicants, there is a certain coldness that comes with the land. There needs to be a cold and calculated protagonist, unearthing this world in a story full of twists and turns. I don't know how that will play out, but I am curious to know if this turns Gosling into the movie star that warrants leading a Fall blockbuster like this.

But if you're not convinced that Gosling is a great actor, I think that there's tons of roles to choose from. There's, of course, Half Nelson. There's also more recent films that show his range from the romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love (again, with Emma Stone), to brooding in Drive to something even greater in the Cianfrance double feature of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. While he is only a secondary character in the latter, I feel like these two films exemplify the height of what he brings to cinema as an art form. These are films about frustrated men as directed by Cianfrance at his most ambitious, even opening The Place Beyond the Pines with a long take that shows Gosling entering a wild circus show. If there's one disappointment, it's that these two haven't worked together since. It's largely because I feel like they get each other, and they mix drama with art in ways that elevate the overall story telling.

I'm not sure if I have discussed it on here before, but Blue Valentine is one of my favorite movies. It's probably why I respect Gosling and have given him a pass at times. In the role, he is required to play a younger and older version of a man who is falling in and out of love with Michelle Williams. While Williams got her Oscar nomination due, Gosling got snubbed. However, it was one of his best performances because it showed the range in accessible ways. On one side was the charming debonair who could play banjo and sing "You Always Hurt the Ones You Love" while seducing everyone in the audience. He conveys the power of young love and struggle so well that you could chalk it up to "Gosling being Gosling." After all, he's fun to watch on shows like Saturday Night Live, but in movies? As La La Land continues to prove, that's a tough call.

But it's in the "older" section of Blue Valentine that the magic begins to unfold for an actor who could be great. Besides looking older and more disheveled, he has evolved into a man frustrated with his life. The genius of the film is that Cianfrance never outwardly states which character is right. Instead, it's a nasty fallout that feels real and requires audiences' personal experiences to dictate their reaction. For Gosling, it's a stunted growth story of a man with lofty ambitions that were never met. Now he's sort of pathetic and ugly, choosing to make every personal moment a joke. He turns a sad phone conversation into a chance to joke about the hotel room's odd structure. Gosling is dedicated and never overplays the annoyance factor. Instead, he feels like that guy. You'd understand why the novelty would fade away, and it only elevates Williams' performance more. Both are great, but Gosling feels like he got short shrift coming out of that movie.

I could go on and discuss why The Ides of March is an underrated masterpiece of our times, and easily George Clooney's greatest achievement as actor/director/writer/what have you. However, I feel like that would be worth exploring when Suburbicon comes out (unless a better topic comes). For now, I will just say that Gosling has always paired himself well with other actors and I feel like he elevates scene with his quiet nuance. He doesn't need to be loud to get his point across, instead choosing to hide behind a rational performance. Even then, he deserves more credit for his comedic skills in The Nice Guys, which showed that he could play the quiet loser shtick to perfection by simply observing a situation. With that said, I really don't like The Big Short and like to forget that movie exists. The way some of you feel about him in La La Land is how I feel about everyone involved with The Big Short.

Would I call him the greatest actor? Probably not. He definitely has a certain charisma that applies mostly to what he does best. He knows how to observe and blend into a situation, sometimes thanklessly. I am sure that Blade Runner 2049 won't be a hit because of him like Amy Adams made Arrival better. That's my personal guess. While I have heard rave reviews, I am also wondering how much of the Best Picture talk is serious and what is just hyperbole. After all, this is the second Ridley Scott-based sequel we've had this year, and I really didn't care for Alien: Covenant. Then again, Villeneuve is getting close to being maybe not a modern Christopher Nolan, but a contemporary. I am curious to know how this movie turns out. I won't be able to tell you this weekend, but hopefully soon. It's been awhile since a mainstream movie of this length (and quality?) got so much buzz.

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