Why can't Sam Rockwell find a movie that fully takes advantage of his singular talents?
Long one of our most expressive, instinctual and interesting actors, the 42-year-old Rockwell has added spice as a supporting player in a string of high-profile studios movies (Iron Man 2, Everybody's Fine, Frost/Nixon, Matchstick Men, Charlie's Angels and The Green Mile, among others) and has been compelling as a central figure in a handful of smaller films (Choke, Joshua, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Lawn Dogs and Box of Moon Light).
Last year's underrated and unfairly overlooked Moon came the closest to maximizing Rockwell's unique gifts, which is curious given that its story of an astronaut lost in space is essentially a one-man show.
That's not to say Rockwell's acting choices always work, but at least he isn't afraid to take chances with a character, whether it be an unexpected personality or costume quirk (like his haircut in Frost/Nixon) or a welcomed injection of humanity in pictures that sorely need it (like the otherwise lackluster Choke).
A few years ago I interviewed filmmaker David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Pineapple Express), who was at the Sundance Film Festival with Snow Angels, an ensemble melodrama featuring Rockwell as an emotionally and psychologically unstable blue-collar guy separated from his wife and young child. There's a scene late in the film in which Rockwell's distraught character show up at his estranged wife's house and pleads with her to take him back.
“It's a monologue that if miscast it could fill in all the melodrama that you'd need for an episode of One Life to Live,” Green said. “But Sam hit notes of absurdity in it that he improvised. He's trying not to get emotional within the performance, but that's what made it so emotional.
“When I yelled 'cut' I see our very strong, very talented, experienced boom operator shaking,” Green said. “I looked at him and said, 'Jerry, what's wrong?' And Jerry says, 'I've been there, man.' It was one of those moments where you realize that a guy could have taken this into some of those mannered, over-the-top directions and Sam kept it so grounded that your very stereotypical-looking-boom-operator-movie-crew guy with his vest on and shaggy hair and beer belly has tears in his eyes.”
Now comes Tony Goldwyn's Conviction, another worthwhile but flawed movie featuring another singular Rockwell performance, which brings us back to our original question: When will we get the quintessential Sam Rockwell movie?
CONVICTION — Yet another inspiring true story, this one about Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) who earns her GED, a four-year college diploma and eventually a law degree in order to prove the innocence of her wild-child brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who is serving a life sentence for a murder that he didn’t commit. It's difficult to watch Swank and Rockwell do their respective things without noticing that they are struggling against material that, despite their best efforts, still looks like a glorified television movie of the week. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Mariemont Theatre.) — tt stern-enzi (Rated R.) Grade: D
SAW 3D — What more can be said about this surprisingly successful (at least in terms of box-office receipts), uncommonly brutal horror franchise? This seventh and supposedly final installment, directed by Saw VI's Kevin Greutert, jumps on the 3-D bandwagon and features Tobin Bell yet again as Jigsaw, the nefarious dabbler in exploitative mayhem and violence. Costas Mandylor, Sean Patrick Flanery and Cary Elwes also pick up a paycheck as supporting characters. (Opens wide Friday.) — Jason Gargano (Rated R.) Review coming soon.
STONE — Robert De Niro and Edward Norton team up in John Curran’s meditative exploration of two men seemingly on opposite sides of the law-and-order divide. Curran (The Painted Veil, We Don’t Live Here Anymore) serves up what could have easily been familiar diner fare as if he’s angling to prove that he’s a chef in full command of his skills. (Read full review here.) (Opens today at Esquire Theatre.) — tts (Rated R.) Grade: B
WHAT IF … — Brought to you by one of the guys behind the Left Behind book series, What If... tells the story of Ben Walker (Kevin Sorbo), a successful business executive who 15 years earlier ditched his college sweetheart (Kristy Swanson) and his calling as a preacher in exchange for a life of material extravagance. But, of course, “God has other plans,” which are apparently to be carried out by an “angel” played by former Cheers barfly John Ratzenberger. Dallas Jenkins, son of aforementioned Left Behind co-author, directs this latest independent Christian-leaning tale to hit area theaters. (Opens today at multiple Danbarry Cinemas.) — JG (Rated PG.) Not screened for review.