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If Robert DeNiro Was a Mouseketeer: A Critical Appraisal of Ryan Gosling (Part 1)

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To study Ryan Gosling is to view an actor in cyclical transition.  Over the last five years, he has matured into an actor off uncommon subtlety and grace, and one is tempted to look at Gosling in recent films like Blue Valentine, Drive, and The Ides of March, and say, “Finally!  He has arrived,” as if the nuance of his recent performances represents a sudden transformation, a casting off of the previous psycho?/gloom-head?/heartthrob? status with which critics chose to label him.

A closer look reveals another truth, that his creative successes and failures gave the young actor the opportunity to come full-circle, to revisit the roles of his youth, albeit in a markedly different light.  The great artists, the enduring movie stars: the same obsessions forever haunt them—they just become better at realizing these demons.

The emergence of Ryan Gosling: The Actor began not with his Mickey Mouse Club or “Young Hercules” days but with 2001’s The Believer, a dark drama about a Jewish Neo-Nazi.  In many ways, writer/director Henry Bean’s film is a pale shadow of Tony Kaye and Edward Norton’s infinitely more polished American History X.  For all its obvious melodrama—the setup, with Norton’s reformed skinhead trying to rescue his troubled brother from a future of racism and hate, is only two or three paces removed from something like Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien in Angels with Dirty Faces—American History X works on a gut-level, whereas The Believer ultimately founders under the weight of its morally provocative-yet-unsatisfyingly realized ambitions.

What distinguishes The Believer is Gosling.  In many ways, Gosling’s work here reminds me of DeNiro in films like The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight or Bang the Drum Slowly; it’s a sloppy, undisciplined performance, yet it has a crude vitality that transcends both itself and Bean’s unfocused script.  The transcendence cuts both ways.  He throws himself into the film’s contrivances, and his manic conviction, primarily in a scene where he discovers that his on-screen love interest (Summer Phoenix, playing the ridiculously named Carla Moebius) has been having an affair with Billy Zane’s enigmatic Aryan leader, rings as more-than-a-little embarrassing.  On the other hand, the zeal he works himself into fits the internal moments—his Danny Balint is a kid whose love for his Jewish faith equals his hatred for the same institution, after all—giving his constant self-loathing/self-love an operatic charge far outpacing anything in American History X.  The moment I knew Gosling was going to matter comes late in the film, when his character explodes on a group of skinheads for not showing the proper respect to a synagogue that they have come to vandalize.  The force of anger, the depth of feeling—it was (and is) so strong, with a shifting, unpredictable intensity.  He felt dangerous.  Most actors don’t.

For all its technical faults, the performance got him noticed (as it should have), and Hollywood, as it is wont to do, came ‘a calling.  Unsurprisingly, the studio system immediately diluted his work.  I imagine that when the suits had their assistants describe The Believer to them, the conversation went something like this:

Suit:  I’m hearing good things about this Ryan Gosling fellow.  What have you heard?

Over-educated, under-paid Hollywood assistant:  I think he could go big-time.  This movie he did, The Believer?  Really unconventional stuff.  He’s a Jewish Neo-Nazi who approaches Judaism and anti-Semitism with the same near-psychotic idolatry.

Suit:  Psychotic, ay?  Is he scary?

Over-educated, under-paid Hollywood assistant:  Well, yeah, but that’s not really the point.  It’s more about the moral and spiritual vacuum—

Suit:  So he can play the bad guy?  How ‘bout a real Hannibal Lecter-type role?

Over-educated, under-paid Hollywood assistant:  Um, I mean, I don’t see why he couldn’t, but again, it’s not quite—

Suit:  Then it’s settled!  Give him a real Hannibal Lecter-type role.

And that’s how we got Murder by Numbers, his big post-Believer part.  He’s a teenage murderer in a cat-and-mouse game with troubled cop Sandra Bullock, and he fits the “Hannibal Lecter-type” too well—he overacts with the forced enthusiasm of late-period Anthony Hopkins.  Think Red Dragon Hopkins or The Wolfman Hopkins—pure paycheck stuff.  Gosling is entertaining enough, I suppose, in a hammy sort of way, but the creative dilution hurts to watch.  It’s much ado about nothing, Gosling’s talent servicing a surface-level, Movie-of-the-Week psycho with no layers; the film flirts with giving him a homosexual connection to Michael Pitt’s weaker criminal accomplice—à la Leopold & Loeb—and then quickly abandons the idea.  Hollywood likes its sinners easily classifiable, which means mainstream taste sands down the interesting edges of a Believer performance.

I suspect that Gosling knew he was dumbing-down superior work simply because he dialed his energy way back in two subsequent pictures—2003’s The United States of Leland and 2005’s Stay.  In both films, he plays young men rendered near catatonic by their psychological troubles.  Here’s the rub: while I commend his willingness to go 180 degrees from what audiences now expected of him, he just is so boring to watch in this mode.  It’s as if he’s saying, “I’ll give you something I know you won’t like simply so you can’t use it against me later.”  There’s no risk in Leland or Stay, no sense of play—he’s a handsome blank, nothing more, nothing less.

But salvation—both critical and commercial—would arrive a year later, and it would take a form that no one (Gosling included, I’d wager) expected….

(Check back on Wednesday, January 11th, for Part 2 of this Ryan Gosling retrospective.  In it, I’ll discuss the impact a certain maddeningly popular chick flick had on our young subject.)