Ever since her breakthrough in Junebug, Adams has spent the last half decade typecast as wide-eyed innocents confronted by jaded people and situations which require her to rethink her naivety. With The Fighter, the normally perky Adams plays a hardened, seen-it-all bartender who falls for Mark Wahlberg's boxer. Quite a 180, but Adams is talented enough to make it work without raising any eyebrows. Ultimately, she's the supportive girlfriend, the one who urges her man to carry on with his work when he has given up and nearly all hope is lost. Adams resists the easy conventions of the role, playing up the ambiguity of her motivations in helping Wahlberg's Micky. Bale's and Leo's characters are, as the traditional narrative goes, the baddies of this piece, urging Micky to continue fighting for all the wrong reasons (to relive his former glory and to pay her bills). Adams would normally be the unequivocal voice of reason, but after awhile, it appears that she has her own motivations--getting even with Micky's family, for one, and trying to alienate Micky's affections--in motivating Micky. She's not a bad guy by any means, but the dark shadings to her character are a nice change of pace.
Speaking of stock in trades, Cotillard has recently taken a liking to "woman scorned" roles. I wasn't as taken with her work in Nine as many others were, mainly because the film was an absolute mess. Inception, with its icy coldness and clinical, cerebral approach to its sci-fi narrative, needed an emotional center to make the whole film worthwhile. Cotillard provides that missing heartbeat and then some as Mal, the woman of Cobb's (DiCaprio) nightmares. She starts off as a vague, looming threat to our protagonist's main mission, but over time, Cotillard reveals Mal's motives for haunting Cobb. There are two things about about Cotillard's performance that ultimately fascinate me. First of all, I love the way she uses Mal's sexuality as a threat against anyone who tries to invade her and Cobb's world. When Ellen Page's character makes her way to the lowest level of Cobb's subconscious, against his wishes, Mal is there to fight her off. She saunters over to her in a tight-fighting dress, showing off all her curves and getting right in Page's face. It's a new and interesting way to play a basic scene. Secondly, her final scene, when Cobb finally reveals to her the truth about their past, is an unexpectedly emotional wallop. Cotillard brings clarity to a moment many actresses would have played for simple melodrama. How does she do it? I don't know, but I was considerably more invested in her emotional journey than the actual inception taking place in Inception.
For Colored Girls
By now, Tyler Perry is well known for providing good, meaty roles in films for African-American actresses often ignored by mainstream Hollywood. For Colored Girls is Perry's most epic undertaking in this regard, as he adapted the famous choreopoem by Ntozake Shange with spectacular roles for 10 African-American women. One of these roles, a tired working mother who is balancing a demanding job with a demanding boss, raising her children and keeping her PTSD-effected husband from going off the deep end, went to Kimberly Elise and she absolutely nailed it. Given the above description of her character's life, Elise doesn't make her a victim of her circumstances. She doesn't wallow in self-pity about her tough life. She deals with it, whether that's doing something as ordinary as taking care of her children or putting on a brave, supportive (although she's secretly doubting him) face for her husband when he tells her he wants to change his ways. Elise wears her melancholy as if it's an ill-fitting bra; it annoys her all day, every day but it's something that must be tolerated. I do say, brilliant choices all around.
Like Black Swan's constant dualities between dark/light and good/evil, Kunis' persona is built on a struggle between her striking good looks and her varied talents as a comedienne. Her work on That 70's Show and Family Guy makes her look like an odd choice for a major role in a psychosexual ballerina thriller, but her comedic skills are precisely the reason her casting is such a triumph. Kunis' realness and the down-to-earth vibe she exudes are a stark contrast to the rest of the film and, ultimately, become Black Swan's lifeforce. I've seen Black Swan twice now and on the second time, after the initial mystery surrounding the film's "is she or isn't she insane?" narrative became stale and repetitive, Kunis' performance as the enigmatic Lily is the only remaining unresolved mystery. Lily's openness and levity becomes far more offputting than Barbara Hershey's calculated coldness simply because we have no idea where she is coming from. Is she just a friendly girl reaching out to a lonely, confused comrade or is she intent on stealing Nina's role and is only playing nice to get on her good side? We never know the truth and the film is all the better for it. Kunis is smart to not play into Black Swan's above mentioned dualities because by remaining a friendly cypher, she becomes a much darker and more imposing figure.
For Colored Girls
Between scores and scores of forgettable films, every half a decade or so, Thandie Newton reminds us why she is one of the most potent, alive and freshest actors around. She plays Tangie, a young woman who sleeps with random men as an outlet for her anger towards her super-religious mother (Whoopi Goldberg). Tangie is loud, angry and aggressive, automatically making her role baity and "look at me" attention grabbing. Sure, Newton does chew an awful lot of scenery, out shouting Phylicia Rashad, Tessa Thompson and Whoopi Goldberg on separate occasions. Underneath the loudness, however, Newton does fine work underscoring the hurt girl underneath. During a highly charged argument with her mother, it becomes clear that Tangie sleeps around as a way of punishing her unforgiving mother. Newton does fine work in this scene because she understands and shows that emotional abuse takes all forms and affects people in different ways. She openly hates her mother and everything she stands for yet she continues to seek her approval. Newton could have let the bigness of the role carry but she does a lot of heavy lifting to give the role more depth.
And the Diva Cup Goes to: Mila Kunis, Black Swan