By Alex Pappademas | NYTimes | Read original
In the Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” Ryan Gosling is a stunt driver and part-time mechanic who moonlights as a wheelman for thieves (when he’s not tooling around late-night Los Angeles listening to moody, synthy pseudo-’80s tunes). In George Clooney’s “Ides of March,” Gosling is a whiz-kid political operator drawn into campaign-trail bloodsport. We’ve all seen enough movies centered on these archetypes — the rigorously self-controlling loner caught up in a heist gone bad; the idealist tested by the way the real world works — that by now we think we know them like old friends. But in Gosling’s hands, these characters seem unknowable and unresolved and volatile. He plays them as men whose easy charm and surface gentleness conceal a capacity for unexpected brutality, whether professional/moral (“Ides of March”) or skull-stompingly physical (“Drive.”) They’re golden-retrieverish golden boys with the potential to burn the world down.
To the extent that America knows Gosling, roles like these are not what it knows him for. As long-distance lovers in “The Notebook” (2004), based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, Gosling and Rachel McAdams jerked tears and inspired many fan-made YouTube montages; at one point Gosling’s character builds McAdams’s character a table and then makes love to her on that very same table.Gosling actually built the table in real life and dated McAdams for years, and after they broke up, he found himself reassuring weeping fans on the street that the end of McGosling in the world did not mean “The Notebook” had been a lie
“The Notebook” is pretty stupid, but you get the feeling that the real Ryan Gosling, earnest and true, is present in it to a degree that Gosling felt both uncomfortable with and excited by, and the part continues to define him. This past summer, while walking near St. Marks Place in Manhattan, Gosling intervened in a brawl between two men, and someone caught it on a cameraphone and put it on the Internet; in the video, you can hear a bystander express disbelief that the good Samaritan is “the guy from the movie . . . ‘The Notebook’!”
The possibility that he’d only ever be the guy from the movie “The Notebook” (T.G.F.T.M.T.N.) gave Gosling something to push against, productively. In the years that followed he was drawn to characters who wore the qualities we’ve come to think of as Goslingesque as a disguise — solid, nice-seeming dudes who were actually, say, self-loathing closet crack smokers (“Half Nelson”) or destined to grow into bitter, emotionally stunted Terry Richardson lookalike day-drinkers upon entering into the covenant of marriage (the wrenching “Blue Valentine”). He’s almost always utterly believable in an unshowy way, which is pretty much the definition of good acting, but he has also chosen roles that allow him to use the idea of Ryan Gosling T.G.F.T.M.T.N. against itself, which is what smart movie stars (that is, actors whose work can’t be viewed apart from what we know about the totality of their careers and their extracinematic lives) do instead of trying to disappear.
Except: Is Gosling actually a movie star, and to what degree? You can tell that a lot of people want him to be one. He’s maybe the most appealing solution to our current leading-man crisis, in which we’ve got a surplus of handsome guys but no clear successor to Tom Cruise or Will Smith or George Clooney (about whom more in a minute). The hype around “Drive” came from culture-industry people — accustomed to feigning enthusiasm about the prospects of predigested, line-toeing, seemingly tube-grown actor units with lifeguardish names like Channing and Bradley and Taylor — getting authentically excited about Gosling jumping to the A-list. Because compared with the competition, he’s as interesting as Bob Dylan in 1966. He walks around New York with a tiny guitar, breaking up street fights! He talks frankly in interviews about how his relationships with McAdams and his “Murder by Numbers” co-star Sandra Bullock have ruined him for all future girlfriends! He owns and seems to actually spend time running a Moroccan restaurant in Beverly Hills and plays in a nonterrible band!
When Gosling, who’s Canadian, admitted recently that his curious hello-faddah Brooklyn-dockworker accent was an affectation he cultivated and then found himself unable to shake, no one seized on it as evidence of a deeper phoniness; the fact that he copped to it made even the most inauthentic thing about him into a signifier of authenticity. There’s a popular Tumblr blog — I can’t say the name here, but it’s something like Heck Yeah! Ryan Gosling, only more emphatic — that features nothing but pictures of Ryan Gosling being good-looking, with goofy Gosling-voice captions. (“Hey, girl, my New Year’s resolution is to give you more foot massages.”) A lot of actors might have been chagrined at becoming a Web meme; Gosling recently showed up on MTV to read a bunch of “Hey, girl” quotes out loud. With the possible exception of James Franco, no actor of Gosling’s generation is better at self-awarely puncturing his own mythos in a way that somehow enhances that mythos — at existing inside the pop-entertainment sphere and remaining fully conscious of its paradoxes.
There was a sense before “Drive” opened that Gosling was finally doing the thing that a decade’s worth of man-crushy magazine profiles suggested he was deeply ambivalent about doing — namely, making films people would actually go see. After a string of dark turns that peaked creatively and darkness-wise with “Blue Valentine,” he teamed up with Steve Carell in the romantic comedy “Crazy Stupid Love,” which has quietly raked in $80 million. If he’d followed that role with an action movie — if “Drive” had been the “Gone in 60 Seconds”-style car-chase thriller the trailers sold it as — that would have constituted a declaration of intent, a bid for the superhero-movie short list and the traditional leading-man zone.
But “Drive” turned out to be a God’s-lonely-man movie in the spirit of “Taxi Driver,” Michael Mann’s “Thief” and “American Gigolo,” brooding and dreamy and punctuated by blood-spattering violence. The word “artsploitation” has been tossed around in the postmortem analysis of why it made only a little more than $11 million during an opening weekend dominated by the 3-D re-release of “The Lion King.” The advance reviews were stellar, but audiences polled by the market-research firm CinemaScore gave it a C-minus. This must feel like a referendum on Gosling’s mass appeal, especially because “Drive” is sort of the most Goslingistic Ryan Gosling movie ever made. Refn has described himself as a “fetish filmmaker,” and the primary object “Drive” fetishizes is its lead actor. It works as a tense, spare, hyperstylized crime film, but it won’t really be finished as a pop-cultural product until it’s chopped up into screen grabs and posted on fan blogs. Characters talk about how special Gosling’s character is, how good he is at driving; there’s one shot of a kid literally looking up to him, and many shots of Carey Mulligan looking appropriately Gos-struck.
The camera’s in love with him, too — the way he puts on his gloves, the way he grips the steering wheel, the way he kicks people inthe head until they die. And if the film is about anything besides Gosling, it’s a meditation on the idea of action movies, and action heroes, and the idea of Ryan Gosling being one. (The hook in the electropop ballad that serves as the movie’s de facto theme song is “A real human being/And a real hero.”) He’s a stuntman, which means he doubles for the star; at two key points in the movie he puts on a rubber mask that looks a lot like Michael Myers or Devo’s mascot, Booji Boy, but also more than a little bit like Tom Cruise, if Tom Cruise were a monster.
The obvious conclusion to draw from the fact that “Drive” didn’t make a lot of money is that the cultural gatekeepers who made a big deal about his movie have a thing for Gosling that mainstream moviegoers don’t share — that people don’t know Gosling well enough to care about a movie that derives its meta-zest from planting him in a role normally reserved for a traditional movie star. It’s not unlike what happened to James Franco earlier this year, when he tried to co-host the Oscars ironically and fell so flat they might as well have added his picture to the In Memoriam montage. Viewers who’d been following Franco’s attempts to turn being famous into a conceptual-art piece — by playing an artist named Franco on “General Hospital” and carving the late Brad Renfro’s name on his arm as part of a Venice Biennale installation, among other things — understood what he was trying to do, more or less. But to casual viewers lacking an M.F.A. in Francology, Franco’s decision to Tweet from the stage looked like the shenanigans of a jerky actor taking the job of entertaining us unseriously. (A Pew Research study revealed that only 13 percent of Internet-using Americans are on Twitter — Franco wasn’t even using a populist social network.)
What’s really going on here is that we no longer agree, as a society, on who’s famous. There’s reality-TV fame, there’s anointed-by-the-industry-of-cool fame and there’s people-who-get-their-famous-people-news-exclusively-from-People-magazine fame. Then there’s the way we actually consume entertainment, which sometimes has nothing to do with the way we consume celebrities. Which is why it’s interesting that, right now, in the right multiplex, you can theater-hop from “Drive” to “The Ides of March,” a movie starring both Gosling and George Clooney. “The Ides of March” is a serviceable political melodrama seemingly designed to give Clooney, who has declared that he’ll never run for president, a chance to give his stump speech anyway. But it also feels as if Clooney, 50, is passing a very specific torch to Gosling, 30. Because if you factor out movies in which Clooney and Brad Pitt team up to steal something, Clooney’s box-office track record is pretty spotty. For every “Ocean’s” movie or “Up in the Air” there’s a commercial disappointment like “The American” or “Syriana” or “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” And yet Clooney remains an A-list actor, on what magazine profiles love to refer to as “his own terms.”
The conventional wisdom is that Clooney pulls this trick off because he’s a throwback — the last of the old-Hollywood leading men, wears the heck out of a tuxedo, etc. — but maybe he’s really the first of a new breed of movie star, able to leverage movie-star allure without making mass-audience movies. The posters for “The Ides of March” depict a stubbly, tousled Gosling obscuring half his face with a Time magazine cover depicting Clooney’s Democratic-hopeful character, and while as a design decision that’s obviously supposed to clue people in that the actual movie star Clooney is in this movie, it’s also a good metaphor for where Gosling’s career may be headed. In a culture too fragmented for anybody to please everybody all the time, he’s a meta movie star, doing serious work behind a leading-man mask.