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Zellweger Faces Uncertain Future as Case 39 Flops

Zellweger Faces Uncertain Future as Case 39 Flops

Signature line: “You had me at hello.”

Career Peaks: In 1996, Zellweger played the lovable chipmunk-cheeked girl next door who wins the love of jacked-up talent agent Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. Women also identified with her as a Jane Austen-inspired chubby Brit diarist in Bridget Jones Diary and its sequel.

Awards Attention: Bridget Jones Diary–and her flawless Brit accent– garnered Zellweger an Oscar nomination, as did her show-stopping turn as murderous song-and-dance girl Roxie Hart in the Oscar-winning Chicago. Zellweger finally won for her folksy supporting role in 2003’s Cold Mountain.

Latest Misfires: Back in 2006, Zellweger filmed her role opposite Bradley Cooper in Christian Alvert’s genre thriller Case 39, as a social worker who adopts a little girl who is nastier than she looks. Long before a stalled stateside opening, Paramount released the film overseas before targeting it to Latin audiences in America, where the tainted thriller finally opened to a dismal $5.3 million. Zellweger starred as a Miami career woman who moves to a small town in Minnesota in Gold Circle’s 2009 fish-out-of-water comedy New in Town. The badly reviewed romance co-starred Harry Connick Jr. and grossed $22 million worldwide. This, after dipping box office receipts (Nurse Betty, Down with Love, Miss Potter, Leatherheads, Appaloosa).

Biggest Problem: The gifted actress is facing an unforgiving industry that doles out few juicy roles for women over 40. Too long in the tooth to play the cute and spunky ingenues that worked best for audiences early in her career, Zellweger has lately starred in several indies financed overseas (My One and Only, New in Town), where her marquee bankability (like most stars these days) is fading. Unable to land a stateside distributor for My One and Only, a road movie starring Zellweger as a 50s East Side socialite Mom who takes off with her two teen boys after catching her bandleader husband (Kevin Bacon) with a floozie, Zellweger’s reps signed up indie self-release outfit Freestyle. The movie earned a 69% fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating and decent numbers in limited release, winding up at $2.5 million.

Biggest Assets: She’s an enchanting character actress and audiences like her.

Current Gossip: For over a year, the actress, 41, has been dating hunk-du-jour Bradley Cooper, 35, who she first met on Case 39, amid constant wedding/break-up rumors. She’s writing songs after performing a Dylan cover on her upcoming indie My Own Love Song. And everyone comments on her looks: “She’s messed up her face and doesn’t eat,” snipes one marketing exec.

Next Step: Her role as a wheelchair-bound singer opposite Forrest Whitaker in My Own Love Song (which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival to dismissive reviews in April) suggests that she may be in danger of falling prey to Noble Actress Syndrome (see: Cinderella Man). “She takes herself so seriously,” sighs one studio exec. Zellweger takes a different turn with the indie drama Pillage, which she is producing, to be adapted by writer-director John Krokidas from Brantly Martin’s novel about four pals in Manhattan seeking to escape via the ultimate downtown party. They plan a 2011 New York shoot.

Career Advice: Mix it up. Be open-minded. But finding the love of her life in a film may no longer be the answer, cautions one talent agent. “She should do more comedy like Jerry Maguire,” says one casting director. “She could do a villainess with comic overtones in a comic-book action ensemble, as Heath Ledger did in Dark Knight, or Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow in Iron Man 2. Or a play on Broadway. You’ve got to be out there in the universe so people see you’re working.” There’s debate about whether she’s ready yet to take a television/HBO detour like Drew Barrymore (Grey Gardens), Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce) or Evan Rachel Wood ( True Blood). “She needs a Charlize Theron/Monster indie film role,” suggests one studio exec. “What’s a hit now? Isn’t it about people thinking you’re good? There’s no work out there.”

Here are my Moviefone Career Watch columns, and the Case 39 trailer:

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