Recently, Jonah Hill has begun to show us that his good acting wasn’t just a phase. We thought we’d write him to express our appreciation.
Hey, Jonah Hill,
I’ve been meaning to write you for a while, but with your new sci-fi comedy, The Watch, hitting screens this weekend, now seems like the perfect time. First of all, let me be frank: In recent years you’ve been one of my least favourite actors. You were the weakest link on the Judd Apatow team—an obnoxious liability in Superbad, a whiny irritation in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. You were the tiresome sad-sack who dragged down the Russell Brand rock-star parody Get Him to the Greek. Your mother-fixated man-cherub in Cyrus made my skin crawl.
Then, late last year, something happened to you. You not only dropped 30 pounds, but your comic acting also got leaner. I suspect it may have been thanks to your first dramatic role, as the baseball-loving number-cruncher in Moneyball. Suddenly you were in the major leagues, acting opposite Brad Pitt, and you really stepped up to the plate. Still, you were probably as surprised as your detractors when you got that Oscar nomination. The payoff came in your next comedy, the unexpectedly good 21 Jump Street. No longer the annoying class clown, you dialed down your usual unfunny hysterics and delivered what New Yorker critic Richard Brody aptly described as “neurotic minimalism.” Your bumbling rookie cop was amusing and even—gulp—likable.
In other words, Jonah, I’m warming to you. And it looks like others are, too. Thanks to Moneyball, you’ve scored another dramatic part, in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Keep it up—leaving your genre comfort zone is a great way to confound audience expectations. Look at Keanu Reeves, who’s probably second only to Madonna for the number of times his performances have been compared to wood products. When he was uprooted from the blockbuster sci-fi/action world and transplanted into a quirky little coming-of-age tale—as the hippie orthodontist in 2005’s Thumbsucker—he revealed a sly sense of humour we didn’t know he had. Or there’s Jennifer Connelly, who finally lived down her beautiful-but-dull rep earlier this year in the otherwise muddled satire Virginia. Bleaching her raven locks and gamely portraying a schizophrenic, white-trash Southerner, she showed us that a blonde Jennifer Connelly has more fun.
But as you demonstrated with 21 Jump Street, sometimes actors can remain typecast and still do something fresh. For a master class in that, look to your co-star in The Watch, Ben Stiller. The dude has done the odd dramatic role (remember Permanent Midnight?), but most of the time he leans on his two well-honed comic personae—the pain-in-the-ass and the hapless schmuck. Yet, between money-spinning dreck like the Fockers flicks, he’s had the wherewithal to hook up with less commercial filmmakers who know how to use his schtick in creative ways. Recent example? Ever since 1998’s There’s Something About Mary, Stiller’s been the go-to guy for excruciating humiliation. But in 2010’s Greenberg, writer-director Noah Baumbach took that vast capacity for embarrassment beyond slapstick jokes into a study of a self-sabotaging loser. As a 40-year-old failed musician acting like a fool in front of 20-year-olds, Stiller proved he didn’t have to catch his dick in his zipper to have us wince in pain for him.
But Jonah, the trick is to keep doing challenging stuff. You don’t want to make the same mistake as Adam Sandler. Like you, for a long time he was an actor a lot of us could barely tolerate. Then he took a risk in 2002 and starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, giving one of the best comic performances of the past decade. But after a few more stretching exercises (Spanglish, Funny People—you were in that last one), which didn’t do well at the box office, he chickened out and pissed away all his cred by reverting to odious vehicles like Jack and Jill and That’s My Boy.
So there you go, Jonah. That’s my advice, for what it’s worth. Thanks for tempering my usual cynicism about Hollywood and proving you aren’t just a star because you know Judd Apatow. Now get out there and show us that your good acting wasn’t just a phase.