Let Me Paint this Picture for You, Baby
Date of Assessment: September 24, 2010
Positive Buzzwords: Star quality, name recognition, "SNL"
Negative Buzzwords: Falsetto, cockiness, movies
The Case: Beginning with a bid on "Star Search" and preteen stint in "The Mickey Mouse Club," Justin Timberlake booted himself into the mainstream music scene as a boy-band sensation. Of course, if I were to be detained within Guantanamo Bay and tortured with repeated sessions of 'N Sync, I wouldn't be able to distinguish them from any of their contemporaries, but -- fuck it -- that doesn't mean that Future Sex/Love Sounds isn't loaded on my iPod.
Hey, if you roll your eyes so much that they fall out, that's your own damn problem.
However you feel about Timberlake's music, it's impossible to deny his commercial success and against-the-odds transition into an adult musician. JT's also the owner of countless Grammy awards and, along the way, a couple of Emmy Awards as well. Of course, the latter awards are both related to his "SNL" guest appearances, for which he's gathered much critical acclaim and audience approval. (Seriously, if you don't like Motherlover, Dick in a Box, Classic Peg, and The Barry Gibb Talk Show, well, there's little hope for your humanity.) Now, a successful "SNL" host does not necessarily equate into a compelling movie actor, but one can't help but get the feeling that Timberlake's got Oscars in his crosshairs. Sadly, I just cannot fathom JT actually joining the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, but some critics would probably disagree. It is rather strange, however, that I keep reading and hearing about Timberlake's acting chops, but I've yet to actually witness any evidence to support these claims. Then again, I might be one of the only people who actually suffered through The Love Guru and lived to tell the sad tale that, unfortunately, JT's not so compelling on the big screen even in a comedic role, not to mention those dramatic turns that weren't necessarily doing Timberlake any favors.
Still, Timberlake is downright electric on "SNL." In fact, he's the best damn host in contemporary times, which makes it all the more aggravating that he can't carry a cinematic performance to save his (probably) nonexistent balls (falsetto, people). Perhaps his acting style is simply more suitable for the small screen. Or perhaps he's just better at playing sketch comedy roles that are, essentially, an extension of his own self. Whatever the case, everything falls apart when Timberlake starts in with the "serious actor" mode, and I've been wondering for quite some time why such an obvious discrepancy exists between JT's "SNL" appeal and that thing he calls "acting," so here goes an attempt to articulate the reasons for this gap.
First and foremost on "SNL," there's an unavoidable novelty effect of watching a presumably cooler-than-cool pop star play various ridiculous roles and place himself into scenarios that reside ever-so-slightly outside of an audience's preconceived comfort zone. The effect is amusing not so much for the performances themselves but more of a "Hey, look. Justin Timberlake, pop star, is dressed up like a breast implant and getting down for Plasticville!" reaction. It's not particularly a question of the skits being funny in and of themselves, for it's rather doubtful that any other celebrity would be amusing in those particular scenes. Quite simply, it really does take a lot of talent, not to mention a specific type of personality (which obviously does not belong to January Jones) to pull off hosting "SNL" with any measure of aplomb.
(As a side note, I've got no idea whether "SNL" guest hosts are required to pitch their own sketch characters in manner of the regular cast members. My guess is that hosts are welcome to submit ideas in advance, but a lot of it probably comes from the show's writers, so there's little way to tell whether JT writes any of his own content or, in that regard, merely benefits from a staff who adores and worships him.)
Another necessary aspect of the appeal in watching JT debase himself in "SNL" skits has to do with his own public persona, which is rather easygoing and amiable. At the same time, he's always taken great care to maintain the pop star illusion. This bravado and extreme self-awareness is precisely what allows him, as a globally-recognizable pop star, to get up on stage in front of many thousands of people and do his thing, live. And, as his success on "SNL" would confirm (unlike his would-be comedic turn in The Love Guru, where he didn't have a live audience to impress, other than Mike Myers, for purposes of comic timing), JT plays to a live audience very well. Music videos also appear to present no issues of difficulty, for he's still playing to the JT persona and can to draw from past musical performances of what does and does not work, musically speaking. The fact remains that Timberlake feeds upon a live crowd and, without that, he's rendered metaphorically impotent and cannot perform.
Conversely, when Timberlake places himself in front of a camera with a director and a handful of crew members (but without a live audience, whose instant reaction would allow him to fine tune his performance on the fly), it's painfully obvious that JT's got no barometer. At no point during a Timberlake movie has he ever suspended my belief that I'm not watching "Justin Timberlake, pop star," who is, quite clearly, acting like he's acting. Yet no realistic emoting comes forth, so JT comes off like a cartoon character in most of his cinematic performances to date. With that said, JT is competent enough in small, specifically-geared roles. He wasn't necessarily awful in Southland Tales (that is, no worse than the film itself) while narrating and performing a musical number. In Alpha Dog, he's did okay at playing a suburban white-boy gangsta, mostly because JT's own "oddly high-pitched speaking voice" and "obvious, graceless self-consciousness" matched that of his poseur character, and it worked because, when it comes to acting, JT essentially is a poseur. However, watching JT in Black Snake Moan, wherein he tried to pull off a trailer-trash character, who was prone to panic attacks and existed primarily as one-half of a co-dependent relationship.... well, I laughed my ass off whenever JT appeared onscreen. Even more disastrous was last year's turn in a leading role (The Open Road) that showcased JT as a young man attempting to reconnect with his estranged father during a cross-country road trip. His performance would have been acceptable in a high school play, but next to the likes of Jeff Bridges? Not a chance.
Prognosis: On tap, Timberlake's still got a bevy of proving ground: The Social Network, Bad Teacher (also starring ex-girlfriend Cameron Diaz), and the nauseatingly horrible-looking Yogi Bear. While I suspect these will not be outstanding performances, Hollywood will also likely cut JT some extra slack because of his mega-celebrity status. However, I would urge Justin Timberlake to return to his musical roots. After all, he possesses the financial resources to do some heavy-duty producing as well as the cred to become one of the new-style music execs (sorta like Trent Reznor, only douchier, since JT's the guy who retired "Sexy Back" after just two years). And -- when Timberlake's got the itch to scratch -- "SNL" will always have him.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.