Annals of the Underrated: Sam Rockwell

February 6, 2013

winning season

I have, on occasion, posted rants about filmmakers and actors who I consider overrated, a list that includes John Hughes, Terrence Malick, Zooey Deschanel and Ridley Scott, among others.

And, at some point, a reader sent in a comment that said, “Why not write about someone who’s underrated?”

To which I had no good answer. It was an absolutely reasonable request. It just took me a while to figure out who to write about.

And then I saw a film called “The Way, Way Back” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and found my subject: Sam Rockwell, one of the funniest, most original and compelling actors working in films today. And one of the most underrated, in terms of awards or the kind of big-budget roles that turn someone into a star.

I’ve been a fan of Rockwell’s since the first film I remember seeing him in: 1996’s “Box of Moon Light,” a wonderful and sadly overlooked film by the similarly underappreciated writer-director, Tom DiCillo. He played a free spirit known only as the Kid, into whose forest retreat a very uptight John Turturro stumbled, to be changed forever.


Rockwell had a run of really tasty little independent films in the mid-1990s, the kind of movies that were a staple at Sundance for a while: “Jerry and Tom,” “Lawn Dogs” (opposite a very young Mischa Barton), “Safe Men.” He inevitably played guys who tended to act impulsively and think later, loose cannons running a little wild in their own lives, their mouths more than likely to get them into trouble they could avoid but couldn’t help chasing.

When he showed up in bigger budget films – like “Galaxy Quest,” “The Green Mile” or even “Charlie’s Angels” – Rockwell played smaller but always tangy character roles, as convincing at playing a doofus as a vicious killer. He was, to quote a recurring line from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the guy who was the “wild card, bitches!”

Oh, Rockwell can play it straight. He was a concerned parent of a demonic child in “Joshua,” and played James Reston Jr. to Michael Sheen’s David Frost in “Frost/Nixon.” He was second banana to (but still stole the show from) Nicolas Cage in “Matchstick Men” and Robert De Niro’s musician son in “Everybody’s Fine.” And he was heartbreaking as a wrongly imprisoned ne’er-do-well in Tony Goldwyn’s “Conviction.”


Yet he can still carry a film, if someone will let him. George Clooney had the good sense to cast him as Chuck Barris in his film of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” He was hilariously profane in “The Winning Season” and heartbreaking in “Moon,” as well as canny, weird and sensitive as the scam artist in “Choke.” He stole Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” from, of all people, Christopher Walken, with whom he also went toe-to-toe, oddball inflection to oddball inflection, in McDonagh’s Broadway play, “A Behanding in Spokane,” earning huge, gasping laughs in the process.

His timing, as noted, is impeccable, whether he’s playing squirrely-weird or knowing and funny. He’s perfect in the kind of roles that were the bread-and-butter of Bill Murray and Michael Keaton, in their younger days.

Indeed, you could look at “The Way, Way Back” as Rockwell’s latest answer to “Stripes” or “Night Shift”: He’s the comic engine that drives the film, making fair-to-good material seem great, just by investing in it – and then imbuing it with energy and intelligence.

Personally, I’d love to see Rockwell play the leading man in a film that lets him handle both comedy and drama, while giving him some emotional depth to roam around in. He’s a vibrant screen presence, one capable of capturing and holding the viewer’s attention without ever telegraphing which direction he might be taking things. With his rabbity smile and delightful deadpan, he can wring laughs out of weak material and mine gold from strong writing.

He’s obviously not hurting for work. But still, Sam Rockwell should be a much bigger star, someone for whom directors line up to obsequiously proffer their “A” material. He deserves it.

Because he’s that good – and that underrated.

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