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If Robert DeNiro Was a Mouseketeer: A Critical Appraisal of Ryan Gosling (Part 2)

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Note:  for Part 1, click HERE.

No one would consider The Notebook a game-changer. Nicholas Sparks’ beyond-saccharine novel is the stuff of daytime soap operas, and the 2004 film does little to leaven the oppressive schmaltz.  It’s got James Garner going twinkly-eyed as he reads a story of loss and love to an old woman (Gena Rowlands) suffering from Alzheimer’s.  It’s got comfy period trappings, since Garner’s tale involves two young lovebirds (Gosling and Rachel McAdams) during the post-World-War-II era.  It’s got Joan Allen as McAdams’ frigid mother and Sam Shepard as Gosling’s wise father, and a final “twist” involving Garner and Rowlands that will surprise only the most trusting.

No one was surprised when it grossed almost four times its $30 million production budget.

Yet it let Gosling give what was his most truthful and charismatic performance.  Maybe it was the own off-camera romance with McAdams that goosed his work; maybe he felt safe appearing in a movie that he suspected would actually make money; maybe he just grew up a little bit.  Whatever the case, the level of maturity and confidence Gosling displays is staggering.

He helps drain away some of the sap, internalizing what lesser actors might proclaim, and it’s mesmerizing (unlike the ineffectually internal The United States of Leland); forget his Method-esque role preparations (gaining twenty pounds for the film’s second half, moving to South Carolina for two months to build furniture)—the man smolders.  You watch his Noah Calhoun standing in the rain, practically devouring McAdams with his eyes, and you start free-associating to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront or John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

In The Notebook‘s signature scene, Noah dangles off a Ferris Wheel to make McAdams’ Allie date him, and the light in his eyes gleams.  Formula and cliché dictate that Noah won’t let go; Gosling might, and for a few seconds, we’re thrown.  Unlike in The Believer, Gosling doesn’t spray his energy everywhere.  We get it in focused bursts.  For the first time in his professional career, Gosling invites us in, rather than obscuring himself behind actorly flourishes.  We might have suspected before that he could become a great actor; now, we knew he was a Movie Star.

With that, Gosling recharged his career seeking perfection.  Most of the films he appeared in post-Notebook mirror his pre-Notebook oeuvre; the difference lay in Gosling.  In revisiting previous work, he meant to get it right.

2006’s Half Nelson occupied the same gritty indie territory as The Believer; the self-loathing Jewish Nazi was now a brilliant cokehead trying to balance his addiction with the demands of his middle-school teaching gig.  Same theatrical temptation: to vamp with the unstructured grace of the Oscar Hopeful.  But Gosling doesn’t shout or faux-shudder in addiction woes.  He disappears, becoming quieter and more ethereal as his problems take hold.  At Dunne’s lowest point, you suspect he might float away, until his classroom sessions bring him back, and Gosling turns on the charm and motormouth verbosity.  Genius exists in this man, and we don’t feel disgusted—we feel a curious mix of compassion and confusion, as if Dunne were one of Bergman’s tortured spirits quietly trying to rationalize the pain of existence.

The tortured mute from Stay and The United States of Leland returned in the dramedy Lars and the Real Girl—Gosling plays an alienated young man who connects with people through an anatomically correct Real Doll—except he wasn’t boring anymore.  Lars’ reticent speech patterns and massive bulk suggested a kid hiding under whatever layers he could glom together (fat rolls, puffy snow gear); it’s no surprise that when Lars “opens up” to his doll, his interests are tree-climbing and old Tiny Tim songs. The family-friendly Lars and the Real Girl has none of Leland‘s faux-grit, but Gosling makes the latter film more psychologically intriguing.

Based on a notorious true crime story, All Good Things took his shallowly ebullient Murder by Numbers psycho, dialed back the commercial appeal, and added way more perversions (an unnerving self-loathing, a propensity for women’s dresses).  It’s a perfect and deeply creepy role in an overwrought and unfocused film.  This happens more and more now: Gosling elevates lesser movies with his craft.  His sly, generous star turn in the Grisham-wannabe Fracture, the depths within his ladies’ man finding true love in the excretable Crazy Stupid Love, or the chilling amorality of his political campaign manager in George Clooney’s way-more-mediocre-than-it-should-have-been The Ides of March.  If nothing else, he’s learned how to maintain control even when the films surrounding him can’t.

But Gosling is better when examining his own image in successful movies.  Blue Valentine, one of the most wrenching screen depictions of “true love gone sour,” works because of how skillfully it subverts Gosling’s Notebook associations.  Like The Notebook, Blue Valentine jumps between a relationship’s giddy past and melancholy present, except Blue Valentine puts the lie to The Notebook‘s assertion that True Love Lasts.  The most passionate beginnings can devolve into lovelessness, and the film doesn’t pull out Alzheimer’s as an escape route; Blue Valentine knows that the accumulation of years can be even more destructive.  Watching Gosling, you see an actor in love with his job, the same verve powers both his “happily ever after” memories as well as his ineffectual, fighting-to-maintain-stasis waking nightmare.

Last year’s Drive presented Gosling with his finest hour (so far).  My feelings for the film itself notwithstanding, his unnamed driver acts as a career summation: all-consuming love for an onscreen soul mate (The Notebook and Blue Valentine), hidden trauma (Stay, The United States of Leland, Lars and the Real Girl), a propensity for savage, explosive violence (The Believer), and all with a movie-star sheen (Crazy Stupid Love, Fracture).  Familiar component parts, now forged into an archetypal creation myth.  If Paul Newman were the serial killer, you’d have Ryan Gosling in Drive.

Most actors eventually bore us.  We become inured to their tricks, and the work loses its appeal. I used Robert DeNiro in this article’s title for his positive and negative connotations; 1970’s DeNiro shares Gosling’s passion and discipline, and current DeNiro serves as a cautionary tale of how brilliance can go to seed (Hell-lo, New Year’s Eve!).  If Gosling pursues the same themes and interests with the same level (or better!) of craft, then he’s heading for the books.  Mark my words.