— Rob Letterman, director of the upcoming “Gulliver’s Travels,” was able to spend some regular-guy time with star Jack Black while the two were shooting the film overseas.
“Our kids went to nursery school in London together,” he said. “We spent a lot of time just dropping off our kids, moments of real life, taking them to the park on the weekends. He’s like the pied piper for kids. He always makes time. They follow him around.”
Black has that effect on people. He exudes mirth. The Cheshire grin suggests an amiable maniac, and who can resist that?
But while the 41-year-old Black has performed in roles that require more dramatic ability, in films like “High Fidelity,” “King Kong,” “School of Rock” and “Margot at the Wedding,” it is his saintly devil persona that is the more indelible. And “Gulliver’s Travels,” in which he offers a modern interpretation of the Jonathan Swift tale, figures to only reinforce it.
Does Jack Black have the skill to go beyond the lovable lunatic? And when he does venture out beyond wide-eyed wackiness, does anyone notice?
“I am an admirer of him as a performer, but I don’t always love the projects he picks,” said Jen Yamato, film critic for movies.com. “ ‘Nacho Libre’ is a film I would point out. In his filmography, it’s probably one that he’s best known for. But it’s not one of his better films. It capitalizes on his persona that he has cultivated as a boastful, buffoonish kind of character.
“That’s what, to some extent, has put him on the map. But at the same time it wears thin, and I think we saw after ‘Nacho Libre’ that he seemed to shift and take on more interesting kinds of films.”
Yamato mentioned “Be Kind, Rewind” the 2008 comedy-drama directed by Michel Gondry, as a type of choice that enabled Black to flex his acting pecs. She also compared Black’s career to that of Jim Carrey, who has successfully mixed broad comedies like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Dumb and Dumber” with more thoughtful fare like “The Truman Show” and his most recent, “I Love You Phillip Morris.”
“I think (Black) has shown he has the emotional range that a leading man needs to have,” she said.
Hidden serious side?
Letterman has noticed Black’s many layers as well. The two worked together when Letterman directed the 2004 animated feature, “Shark Tale,” although that only involved Black’s voice. Still, Letterman had lunch with him shortly after, and the two discussed working together again someday.
“There’s a serious guy deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down there that comes out in private moments,” Letterman said. “For the most part, he’s the sweet, fun, big kid you see in the movies. But there’s a serious guy there, too. He’s a dad, with a wife, a real family guy, he loves his sons like any other parent out there.”
Elizabeth Weitzman has a keen eye, and she has spotted the other side of Jack Black as well. Actually, the film critic for the New York Daily News would love to see even more of it.
“He stole his scenes as an off-the-wall orderly in 1999’s gritty indie, ‘Jesus’ Son,’ and held his own against actors like Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2007’s equally downbeat ‘Margot at the Wedding,’” Weitzman said. “In fact, the more serious he is about a project — even a comic one — the better he often is.”
There’s no doubt that Black is a multi-talented individual who is often blessed and cursed by his wicked glare. His work as half of the musical duo Tenacious D is an ideal example. While he and music partner Kyle Gass spend plenty of time yukking it up on stage, they also have managed to stockpile some genuine credibility.
“From what I’ve seen and heard, the stuff is musically valid and aesthetically quite solid,” said Greg Quill, a highly regarded musician himself as well as entertainment columnist for the Toronto Star. “The presentation is boisterous and oafish, but the lyrics are funny, intelligent, genuinely satirical.
“Black adheres to legit forms of structure, rhyme and innate rhythm, but still manages to make his meaning — such as it is — clear. He’s also a reasonably good guitar player. I don’t think they can be dismissed as a novelty act, but I think Black loves playing the clown a bit too much.”
“Gulliver’s Travels” may actually fall somewhere in between wacky Jack and complex Jack. Co-starring Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Amanda Peet, this updated version features Black as travel writer Lemuel Gulliver, who sets out for Bermuda but instead lands in Lilliput, and gets tied up there.
“I like comedies that have some emotional substance and have a lot of heart, not just broad slapstick,” Letterman said. “I like the character journey. There are moments in this that are earnest and true, and require Jack to be vulnerable at a certain point. He’s got dramatic chops. My favorite parts are the sweet moments when he opens up to the princess, or to Amanda Peet’s character.
“The movie is only as funny as it is heartfelt. If he couldn’t balance those things, it wouldn’t work.”
In 2011, Black will be seen in theaters in two more comedies that may open more eyes to the possibilities of his talent. He’ll appear with Owen Wilson and Steve Martin in “The Big Year,” director David Frankel’s look at competitive bird watchers; and he’ll be in director Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” with Matthew McConaughey.
“He has the talent to be a viable — if admittedly unconventional — leading man,” the Daily News’ Weitzman explained, “but he needs to be choosier about his parts. Now that we know he can really act, it would be great to see him do so more often.”