Column: The good, the mediocre and the inconsistent

A schizophrenic, an amnesiac and a dimwit walk into a bar. No, this isn’t the setup for a really bad punch line, but rather the possible scene at this year’s Academy Awards when the nominees for Best Actor are announced. Or at least that is the hope for three of the most prolific actors in film today.

The year 2001 saw seemingly strong performances by Russell Crowe, Jim Carrey and Kevin Spacey. While Crowe and Spacey accounted for the past two Best Actor statues, Carrey tries yet again to be taken seriously as an actor. Unfortunately, his ultimately dull performance in The Majestic pales in comparison to his work in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon.

And while these three thespians and others will be politicking to make the short list this year, they have all faced each other before. In 1999, Best Actor Oscar nominees Crowe and Spacey squared off while their films The Insider and American Beauty were in the running for Best Picture. And although Spacey rode the coattails of the eventual winner American Beauty, Crowe earned a new respect by aging 10 years and gaining 30 pounds in a convincing performance of famous whistle-blowing tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand. However, that year saw an even more convincing performance by an almost too-eerie Jim Carrey impersonating Andy Kaufman.

While Crowe got his due the following year, winning Best Actor for his heroic performance in Gladiator, Carrey is perpetually on the outside looking in. And while he earned Golden Globes for Truman and Moon, Carrey wasn’t even nominated for the Globes this year. And after seeing his decent turn as average Joe in The Majestic, when he’s not nominated for an Oscar, this time it won’t be a snub.

Especially when you consider he would be facing Crowe, who for three years now, has turned in tour-de-force performances. Here, he plays troubled genius John Nash in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind. Every moment of Crowe’s Nash is believable – quite a feat, considering the film spans more than 50 years of the Nobel Prize winner’s life. Whether his character is young and romancing an attractive female student, paranoid of government agents or old and limping, Crowe commands your attention as he tells the story of his character as no other actor could.

In contrast, Spacey sometimes misses his mark as Quoyle in Lasse Hallstrom’s The Shipping News. An almost-drowning victim at a young age, Quoyle is slow in nature and reminds you of your friend who never grew out of that awkward phase he had during his freshman year in high school. While the novel suggests Quoyle should weigh in the upward of 300 pounds, Spacey’s loaf is passable but by no means consistent.

At the beginning of the story, he is a step ahead of Forrest Gump in the IQ race but miles behind Keyser Soze in Spacey’s resume of usual, all-knowing characters. However, his awareness and doe-eyed persona shifts gears throughout to the point of distraction.

Spacey and Crowe were both nominated for the Golden Globe Best Actor-Drama award for this year’s ceremony, but three-time nominee Carrey was left out.

In Frank Darabont’s The Majestic, Carrey plays screenwriter Peter Appleton, who falls victim to Sen. McCarthy’s witch-hunt hearings in 1950s Hollywood. When a night of drinking and driving leaves Peter washed up on the shore of a small town in California after his car ran off a bridge the night before, Carrey’s scribe has amnesia and is mistaken for a long-lost war hero.

Carrey is believable in his serious role, but the slow and predictable film turns out to be just an excuse to say the McCarthy hearings were unconstitutional rather than provide the arc of story that constitutes such a seemingly important performance. As a result, Carrey sometimes appears as if he is playing up something an actor of his caliber should simply be walking through.

While this past year in film gave us many disappointments, there should have been some light at the end of the tunnel. But when three promising films are left until the final month, the end result lead performances by Crowe, Carrey and Spacey should’ve been better than simply a mixture of good, mediocre and inconsistent.

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