This week, news broke that Tim Robbins would be returning to the director’s chair for “Man Under,” a dysfunctional family comedy that will mark his first theatrical feature as a director since “Cradle Will Rock” in 1999. Along with Michelle Pfeiffer and Chloe Moretz, Robbins also will be starring in the film — a welcome return for the actor, who has been relatively quiet the last few years.
A decades-long career has enabled Robbins to play plenty of eccentric and curious characters, in both studio and independent productions. Here’s a look at five of his most distinctive indie-film performances.
Sandwiched between the critical and cult successes of “Being John Malkovich” (1999) and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004) is “Human Nature,” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s underrated first collaboration with director Michel Gondry from 2001. Robbins stars as Dr. Nathan Bronfman, a scientist whose long-standing relationship with his girlfriend Lila (Patricia Arquette) is challenged when the pair discover a feral man in the wilderness, dubbed Puff (Rhys Ifans), and decide to teach him about humanity. From his ominous opening narration in a Pearly Gates-type setting (complete with an angelic white suit crossed with trickled blood from a bullet wound) to his comically manic and desperate frenzy as his girlfriend becomes smitten with the wilderness man, Robbins displays some of his under-seen comedic chops, aided by a smart and unusual, though admittedly not ingenious, Kaufman script.
Robbins lent his eccentric personality to the Coen Brothers for their 1994 romp “The Hudsucker Proxy,” an unlikely homage to screwball comedies that drew from the writer-directors some of the most beautiful visuals in their canon. Robbins stars as the ever-idealistic Norville Barnes, a lowly mail clerk at Hudsucker Industries who is appointed CEO of the company by the Board of Directors in a get-rich quick scheme that depends on him bringing the company down. Norville’s insistence on his big idea — a simple circle drawn on a piece of paper (“you know… for kids!”) — coupled with his outmatched sparring with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Amy Archer, a tough reporter played as Rosalind Russell in a Howard Hawks caper, leads to a performance of almost endless and contagious energy. Like most Coen Bros. efforts, “Hudsucker Proxy” is typically met with a love it-or-hate it reception, but Robbins’ work here succeeds with an unrelenting persistence that parallels Norville’s own rise to the top.
Virtually unseen upon its release seven years ago, Isabel Coixet’s lyrical “The Secret Life of Words” centers on the relationship between Robbins’ Josef and Sarah Polley’s Hanna. What begins as a relatively straightforward and routine drama about two wounded people — Hanna suffers from hearing loss, while Josef lives almost entirely on his back because of burn wounds — and their fragile relationships expands and becomes a powerful work about the scars war can cause, both visible and invisible, without a single battle scene in the foreground. Robbins stands out as being as committed to painful drama as he is to the aforementioned energetic comedy, and “The Secret Life of Words” deserves to be a more well-known performance by the actor.
Robbins takes advantage of his small screen time in Stephen Frears’ 2000 comedy “High Fidelity” to concoct a consistently strange and memorable character. His pony-tailed, sunglasses-wearing, worldly, forward-thinking, dressed-to-the-nines Ian plays in perfect contrast to star John Cusack’s Rob, a lazy record store owner who fritters away the time talking about music with his deadbeat employees and coming up with ‘Top 5’ lists while analyzing why all his past relationships soured. As his most recent ex-‘s new boyfriend, Robbins towers over Cusack during their scenes together, and there may not be a funnier scene in the film than Rob’s nightmarish glimpse into the “incredible sex” Ian must be having with her at that moment. Robbins certainly gives it his all in a small part, making it clear that even when only working in a handful of scenes he can remain in the foreground.
Robert Altman’s 1992 satire of the movie-making business offers Robbins an early memorable role as studio executive Griffin Mill. Making a living of listening to film pitches day-in and day-out (accepting only a dozen of the thousands pitched every year), Mill gets in too deep once he begins receiving death threats from one of the screenwriters whose idea he rejected. Following more than a decade of working outside the system, Altman’s first film back within it is full of wicked jabs at it, amplified by more than fifty celebrity cameos. But anchored amidst all the satirical chaos is Robbins, who once again perfects a character whose ordered existence becomes challenged by the insane world around him — in this case, the very business of making movies.