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The Curious Appeal of Griffin Dunne

The Curious Appeal of Griffin Dunne

I don’t like hubris in any form; when I see it on screen, my
dislike is amplified. Hence, I tend not to be a huge fan of Lead Actors. Joaquin
Phoenix is a Method-fueled blur, Cate Blanchett a scenery chewer, Leonardo
DiCaprio too young, even at his age. I tend to be drawn towards character
actors, or at least those who have built their careers on secondary roles: the Brad Dourifs, the Tom Noonans, the Marcia Gay Hardens, the
non-mega-stars. I tend, also, to be a fan of Griffin Dunne, wherever he appears.
Dunne is an interesting case: he gave early star turns in An American Werewolf in London and After Hours, but has since then been primarily a supporting player, albeit a consistent one.
He formed a standard Griffin Dunne expression in the early films, one which
combines three stages of rage: the initial outburst, the growing anger, and the
acknowledgment that there is nothing to be done, settling into a fixed glower
that never entirely leaves his face. This vulnerability, and his frustration
with it, is too ingrained in him for him to ever be a leading man—he seems to
feel his pains the way the rest of us feel them. He wants to hide them, but he
can’t. Insecurities, fears, and anxieties in the Lead Actor, by contrast, must occur like the
psychological equivalents of exploding cars; they must be huge, expansive, intimidating,
screen-filling. Dunne doesn’t fill the screen, and yet he does occupy it. In
his current film, The Discoverers, he
occupies the screen much like a human grounding plug—his presence never allows
other characters’ histrionics to go too far. Any rage of his own is, likewise, contained.

Granted, The
had stiff competition, given that it opened on the same day as
Godzilla; if faced with the choice of
seeing a film about the career struggles of a poorly shaven history professor
or a movie about a gigantic lizard from the bottom of the ocean, the decision might, for many viewers, be fairly simple. This is regrettable, because any flaws the
film contains (and there are a few) are small in contrast with the strength of
its different elements. The story has a shaggy-dog quality to it, one part road movie, one part self-realization saga: divorced
history professor Lewis Birch (Dunne) is traveling to Portland for a professional conference
with his two children, here beautifully deadpanned by Madeleine Martin and Devon Graye; he has
also just sent his 6,000-plus-page history text on a minor figure in the Lewis
and Clark Expedition to a diminutive, obscure academic publisher. Neither of
these attempts are destined to be successful; Birch broadcasts their impending
failure with his entire bearing: the stubble on his chin, his poor posture, his
messy apartment, even his dirty car, suggest things won’t work out so well for
him. The fact that he moonlights as a security guard indicates, in tandem with
all of the other clues, that the trip is a bit of a Hail Mary pass. What
distinguishes Dunne’s performance from those of other actors who have “gone
sloppy” for the sake of a role (see Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, for a famous example) is that it hurts more. In a
swerve that shapes the story, Birch is forced to make a detour en route to the
conference to see his estranged parents, one receding into dementia, the other
fatally ill. The lack of love communicated between Birch and his father, played
beautifully by Stuart Margolin, is palpable; what radiates here is less alienation
than profound dislike. It comes out in small ways, such as their inability to
look fully at each other for long, or the vaguely deadened, aggravated sound in
Dunne’s voice when he speaks to his father. The two are left alone because Birch’s mother dies suddenly, before she speaks a line of dialogue; her absence
hangs over the rest of the film as if it might be the only thing that would
cement their relationship.

In After Hours and American Werewolf, as with subsequent roles, Dunne seemed more
rational than any of the players surrounding him. After Hours found his modest office worker wandering through the
streets of Soho at night, being toyed with and pursued by a host of brilliantly
portrayed characters, including a be-beehived Teri Garr, a sad, brooding,
obsessive John Heard, and a vengeful Catherine O’Hara. In American Werewolf, he still offered the voice of reason, even from
beyond death, as his soon-to-be-lupine friend couldn’t control the changes
occurring in his body and mind and Dunne’s gorily maimed corpse had to explain things
to him, in a sarcastic, do-I-really-have-to-explain-this tone. Here, similarly, Dunne’s grounding-plug instincts are put to the test
as he must follow his father into the woods, where he has gone with a group of
re-enactors of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Predictably, the re-enactors all
speak in period language, eschew modern convenience, act somewhat
freakishly—and predictably, hijinks ensue. But these hijinks don’t reach nearly
the pitch they could have—the film’s strength lies in the fact that neither
their absurdity nor Dunne’s sad state are entirely laughable. The director
chooses, instead, to come close to embracing them—we learn a lot about the
expedition through Birch and through his father’s band of cohorts, as the film
looks openly at the re-enactors, considering why they might have arrived at
this point. Perhaps the most touching of these performances comes from Cara
Buono, playing a potentially damaged soul-seeker, a million miles from her more strident recent role as Faye on Mad Men. Similarly, we come to
see Birch as less a middle-aged, down-at-heels academic than a confused son of
confused parents, striving to be more than marginally better at parenting

Dunne is the leading man of this film, and yet he is not the
leading man. The film offers too much competition, in every way, even beyond
the strengths of its other actors. The script, while it has its moments of pat
indie-com humor, is admirably restrained and intimate; even Birch’s daughter’s
indication of a stray pube on a bathroom floor, as she and Birch are both sitting there, turns into a
moment of closeness. The film’s visuals, as well, rise beyond the story: the
blue of a mountain range or the immensity of a fog-filled morning write their
own kind of script here, across the film’s plot, and they operate in a gorgeous
counterpoint with it. Dunne can’t compete with these elements, nor does he try
to. The strength of actors like this, those who operate on a fainter register than others,
is that they remind us of what we are like, rather than what we are told we might
be like, if we tried. The strength of Dunne’s performance here is that, despite the fact
that he’s arguably the center of the film, you’d never know it to look at him.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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