When the world gets me down, and it has been getting me down more frequently, lately, I like to put on a little movie called School of Rock. It’s an unusually kind-spirited and joyful film, a cinematic celebration of guitar music with none of the genre’s usual pitfalls. It could only have been directed by Richard Linklater, and it could only have starred Jack Black, one of Hollywood’s burliest and nicest-seeming comedic actors, who reigned supreme throughout the 2000s, reached a hectic cultural saturation point, then slowly and inelegantly disappeared. In these dim and heavy times, I think—and please, hear me out—that we should bring him back.
Yes, Jack Black was in Nacho Libre, but Jack Black still absolutely and unequivocally rules. Over the past few relatively Jack Black-free years I’ve often wished more people would cast him in more things, and now maybe that wish is coming true: 2018 has so far provided us with only a handful of small mercies to be thankful for, and one of them is Jack Black’s low-key return to non-Kung Fu Panda acting roles. In January there was Netflix’s The Polka King, in which Black plays a fictionalised version of Polish-American musician and convicted ponzi scheme operator Jan Levan. It’s not an instant classic, but it is almost unfairly watchable. Black quite literally bounces (leading a polka band, it turns out, requires the same level of unwieldy showmanship as giving a classroom of pre-teens rock and roll lessons) off a bunch of stupid-talented co-stars: Jenny Slate, Jacki Weaver, Jason Schwartzman, Vanessa Bayer, and J.B Smoove. He pulls off a cartoonish Polish accent. And he wears devastatingly high-waisted pants while nimbly poking holes in the clichés we’ve come to expect from immigrant narratives. This year you can also catch Black in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and the upcoming Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot: a biopic of quadriplegic cartoonist John Callahan starring Joaquin Phoenix.
It’s not a comeback per-se. Jack Black’s had longer spells of stardom than most, maybe even chosen to squander them somewhat. He’s made a career out of having fun with it, after all, appearing in the music videos of his heroes and guest-starring on cult TV shows and video games. School of Rock was essentially the mainstream incarnation of what he and musical partner Kyle Gass had been doing since the early 90s with comedy band Tenacious D, who were a lovably dorky in-joke that 13-year-olds around the world shared for a good decade there. You definitely downloaded “Tribute” from Limewire at some point in 2003, and nobody can blame you for that, because it’s just ridiculous and silly enough to get away with itself.
The peak 2000s Jack Black era of comedy ended not exactly because Jack Black comedy was bad but because Jack Black comedy had reached a painful ubiquity. After the Tenacious D movie and Nacho Libre and, god, Gulliver’s Travels, it definitely felt like Jack Black wasn’t bringing a whole lot to his movies other than Jack Black. But how much of a problem is that, actually? Jack Black characters are funny and nice and there’s nothing wrong with people breaking into song in the middle of movies, okay?
Jack Black has been present in recent box office hits, mainly by voicing the chubby animal version of himself. Kids movies suit him, sure, but it actually kind of sucks that he has never regained the leading man status he seemed destined for and at one stage appeared to reach with School of Rock. It sucks more that he hasn’t settled into the swing of supporting roles that take advantage of his inherent ability to entertain, as he did in movies like High Fidelity or Tropic Thunder. Or indie passion projects like Be Kind Rewind.
There are two admittedly murky and crisscrossed categories of actor who essentially play the same character in every role. Most common: the lazy cynic, who slips easily into self-caricature in order to receive large pay checks for appearing in forgettable blockbusters. You get this a lot with older white leading men who have reached a middle age crisis point (see: Johnny Depp, Adam Sandler), but the phenomenon can also be observed in one-note SNL comedians, or actors who became famous from a young age for particularly iconic roles and are therefore doomed to play themselves forever.
Then there are those actors who merely give the illusion of doing the same thing every time because their energy is so singular and compelling. Meryl Streep would be the best example, while an action hero like Jason Statham could easily fall into either camp—I’d argue he just scrapes through with a pass. Jack Black, too, is able to take advantage of his unerasable selfness and mix it in with whatever else a particular role requires. The alchemy nearly always yields results. Inarguably Black puts a lot of his personality into a lot of his work, but the guy gets away with it because his charisma overrides everything else. You see it in School of Rock, you see it in The Polka King. A bad actor could never get away with the joyful commitment Black brings to every role; enthusiasm has to be accompanied by talent in order to elicit enjoyment over pity. Jack Black is no cynic—his inalienable puppydogness one of the many reasons why Shallow Hal, an oddly cold-hearted film that I assure you absolutely does not hold up in 2018, reads so poorly.
An easy comparison people made with Jack Black when he first appeared on the scene was John Belushi, another slightly schlubby-looking comic with an intense bouncy energy that was, admittedly, slowed down quite a lot by all the drugs. In some lights Black also brings to mind Philip Seymour Hoffman, the lauded actor whose seemingly intrinsic goodness and kindness often seeped into his on-screen roles—even the more villainous ones. There has to be, in some universe that looks similar to this one, a Paul Thomas Anderson movie script with a perfect Jack Black part. But one director who seems to really get Jack Black is Linklater, who originally cast him in School of Rock and collaborated with him again in 2011’s Bernie.
Bernie is the perfect Jack Black film because it tells the beguiling story of a man so inherently loveable that people are willing to forgive him anything, even committing murder and storing the corpse in an icebox for nine months. It’s a small-town Texas tale, unambitious and unpretentious and therefore willing to take a chance on the acting chops of a man mostly known for singing funny songs and being slightly overweight. As well as a pre-McConaissance Matthew McConaughey, who at that point was languishing in post-Surfer, Dude romantic comedy purgatory. Black and McConaughey are both extremely good in Bernie, the former as a gentle and thoughtful funeral director who weaves a bizarre web of highly illegal lies and the latter as the outlandish Wild West-style district attorney who catches him in them. In Bernie, Black plays a man totally unlike and exactly the same as himself, a balance that is actually incredibly hard to get right.
In one of Jack Black’s many shark-jumping roles of the mid-2000s, he plays Kate Winslet’s love interest in warped Christmas-themed house swap movie The Holiday—Nancy Meyers’ worst film but also, somehow, her best. And that duality sums up Jack Black pretty neatly. Gravity-defyingly likeable even in his very worst moments, and always giving 110 percent. Even when competing for screen time with 2006 Jude Law, even when the script appears to have been written in a single and particularly Xanax-heavy afternoon and then submitted to the studio completely unedited.
Jack Black is an actor and entertainer in the forgotten and traditional and frankly underrated sense. While most men in movies serve as bad reminders of men in real life, Jack Black specialises in a rare genre of non-threatening screen presence that strains, at all costs, to cheer up the audience. Feeling sad? May I recommend watching a silly man doing a silly thing that doesn’t hurt anybody and is, in fact, very funny.
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