No matter what the role, Norton shines brightly

At the end of this calendar year, he will have played a drug dealer, an FBI agent, a children’s entertainer and Nelson Rockefeller. Currently, he stars opposite Anthony Hopkins in the latest Hannibal Lecter thriller. Some are suggesting that Edward Norton is miscast as a retired investigator in Red Dragon.

If that’s the case, then he has apparently been miscast for his entire film career — all six years of it.

Since bursting onto the scene with his Oscar-nominated performance as an abused altar boy in Primal Fear, Norton has been surprising audiences left and right with not only his radically different roles but with his performances in them, as well. From his other Oscar nomination for playing a downright scary white supremacist in American History X, to a horny priest in his own directorial debut, Keeping the Faith, the 33-year-old’s acting range has been across the board.

This explains why Norton has worked with such directors as Spike Lee, Milos Foreman, David Fincher, Danny DeVito and Woody Allen. And this is why his already impressive body of work will stand the test of time. This is why he’ll probably still be around when he’s 66.

In Fincher’s Fight Club, arguably one of the most influential films of the 1990s, Norton provided the voice and the face of a generation of men “who have no place in history.” To get back to his primal basics, his character sheds all of his material possessions and creates a new kind of 12-step, self-help group. While Brad Pitt, in his best performance, was a large part of Fight Club’s appeal, it is Norton to whom people attribute the film’s cult following.

Soon to join Fight Club on the cult classic rack at the video store is the just-released Death to Smoochy. Directed by DeVito, this dark comedy is about a noble simpleton who believes in the innocence of children amid the sinister world of television programming. It is, by far, the best comedy of the year. Norton plays Sheldon Mopes, whose alter-ego is a Barney-esque rhino named Smoochy. It also marks Robin Williams’ first of three forays into the world of bad guys, in which he has lived throughout this defining year. Here, Williams and Norton square off for a prime TV time slot, as well as for the affection of a jaded producer, who is deliciously played by Catherine Keener. The three talents, combined with DeVito’s wit and flair for seediness make for one of the more delightful trips this year.

This fall, Norton will co-star opposite real-life girlfriend Salma Hayek in the all-star casted biopic of artist Frida Kahlo. It will be interesting to see Norton’s Rockefeller mix it up with Alfred Molina’s Diego Rivera and Geoffrey Rush’s Leon Trotsky. Also sharing the screen with Antonio Banderas, Valeria Golino and Ashley Judd, Norton will surely get a chance to off his stuff to a different audience in Frida.

But what may be his most different role to date could come in a Spike Lee joint called The 25th Hour. He will play a drug dealer whose last night of freedom will be spent as a party animal prancing around town trying to come to terms with how life has turned out. Supposedly there’s a twist at the end – something Norton should be used to after appearing in Fight Club and Primal Fear.

But one thing that won’t be surprising is if we see more of Norton. And while it may be difficult for him to find an even wider range of roles to play, it’s a good bet that he will be able to handle them.

But hey, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.