In a recent interview, a journalist perhaps unfamiliar with Hugh Grant’s bullshit-proof brand of wit attempted to compliment the actor on the “variety” of roles he’s played, only to be promptly corrected by the actor himself: “We all know that I’ve only really played one.”It’s a savage career assessment, and for good reason: the affable, sometimes caddish English twit is more or less the only part Grant’s played over the past 30 years. When he tired of being a romantic interest in period dramas like Sense and Sensibility, he moved on to being the romantic interest in romantic comedies like Notting Hill, swapping pantaloons for trousers.
But every romantic lead has an expiration date, and Grant—who’s still been booking rom-com gigs as late as 2015, even as the genre’s fallen out of mainstream favor—rode the gravy train about as far as he could. Known for his casual disregard for acting, Grant often talks of the profession as if it was something he regrettably fell into. One might suspect Grant’s lack of shits given both adds to his appeal and is the reason why he’s been uninterested in stretching the practice of his craft.But now he’s 57—ancient, by Hollywood’s standards—and Grant has, whether through late-career boredom or necessity, been quietly branching out. In the 2012 Aardman animation The Pirates! Band of Misfits, he voiced an inept, self-aggrandizing swashbuckler; in Guy Ritchie’s swingin’ 60s spy thriller The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from 2015, he played a stuffy MI6 honcho; and in last year’s biopic-cum-farce Florence Foster Jenkins, Grant was the adoring, hammy husband to Meryl Streep’s warbling socialite.But no recent film has gotten more from Grant’s talent than Paddington 2. A film so uncomplicatedly joyful that we must wonder whether we even deserve it at all, Paddington 2 is a cinematic balm for our pre-apocalyptic times, and it also represents a serious moment for Grant’s career. For all its tot-friendly frivolousness, Paddington 2 gently kills Hugh Grant—or the Grant we think we know—and resurrects him anew.
Apparently written with Grant in mind, Paddington 2’s big baddie and faded actor Phoenix Buchanan is initially presented as the kind of awkward-yet-charming posho Grant has almost always played. But this breezy shtick of Buchanan’s, which appeals to dwindling crowds, is soon revealed to be just for show: Behind the scenes, Buchanan is a self-loathing narcissist with contempt for his audience and a love-hate relationship with acting—a character, Grant himself has admitted, that is not hugely dissimilar to the real Grant, representing a simultaneous savaging of Grant’s screen and public personas. All this, tucked away inside a family movie about a talking bear.
You could almost say that Paddington 2 is Grant’s The Wrestler moment: a tailor-made role that reckons with the actor’s life and career up to that point. As it trashes our idea of Grant, Paddington 2 opens up new avenues for the actor. He’s portraying the outright villain and has no romantic foil, because Buchanan’s far too in love with himself. The part encourages Grant to play to his comedic strengths—only with a different kind of comedy, broader and more absurd. No longer do we laugh with Grant, the bumbling Englishman, as his self-deprecatingly vain and desperate turn in Paddington 2 encourages us to laugh at him.Paul King’s film also knowingly addresses the lingering notion that Grant is a one-trick pony, and gives Grant the room to dispel it. This despite the fact that Cloud Atlas showcased Grant’s surprising range six years ago: Playing six characters across six different timelines, including an odious counterculture-era CEO and a post-apocalyptic cannibal, Grant alternates between playing funny, weird, and legitimately scary in the Wachowskis’s batshit epic.Paddington 2 again emphasizes Grant’s range: As Buchanan, the “master of disguise” has an evil plan that involves adopting numerous identities, allowing Grant to play a wider variety of characters than he’s done through most of his career. A scene where Buchanan, alone in his dressing room, schemes with Gollum-like multifariousness as himself, a cockney beggar, and Hamlet, could be Grant’s showreel for the next stage of his career.In leaving his comfort zone—abandoning the type that brought him fame and fortune in the first place—Grant’s currently receiving more attention than he has in years. Critics are praising Paddington 2, and Grant just received a surprise BAFTA nomination for his work in it. Like Matthew McConaughey, that other erstwhile perennial romantic lead who at last broke out of his rom-com hell at the beginning of the decade, Grant might be heading for a late-career creative renaissance. We can’t yet know what the next phase of Grant’s career will look like—beyond A Very English Scandal, the Stephen Frears miniseries that represents Grant’s return to serialized television for the first time in over 20 years, he has nothing lined up—but it’s undeniable that Paddington 2 draws a line under the career he previously had.Follow Brogan Morris on Twitter.