“Cute as a button!” Peruse fansites and celebrity gossip blogs, and that’s a term that crops up again and again in relation to actress Rachel McAdams. It’s apt as far as it goes, and it goes pretty far —the adorable dimples, the bright eyes, the hopeful, illuminating smile. Part of McAdams’ individual allure is her personable, approachable, relatable attractiveness. If it were the 1950s and the term still had useful currency (who even knows their neighbors any more?), she could be a girl-next-door, appealing to both men and women, who imagine themselves either to be with her or to be her, depending on preference. But this widespread appeal has a downside: it can typecast the sort of roles that executives and marketing teams most readily believe the public will accept her in (wholesome, sweet-natured young women being more likely to be traditional marriage material than the stuff of sexual fantasies), and it can lead us to underestimate her talents as an actor. “Cute as a button” is rarely a descriptor ascribed to Meryl Streep.
But on the heels of my apologetic reassessment of Colin Farrell‘s thespian abilities from earlier in the week, I wanted to look at his “True Detective” co-star in more detail too. Now, I don’t have as big a hill to climb with McAdams: for many of the abovementioned reasons, I’ve always liked her and have always been pleased when her name pops up in casting lists or in opening credits —because it feels like we can rely on her to be at least solid. So it’s surprising that she’s rarely talked about more generally in terms of her acting chops.
McAdams’ biggest brush with mainstream awards success came with a 2006 BAFTA nomination for Rising Star (she lost to James McAvoy), and she was part of the ensemble who were SAG-nominated for “Midnight in Paris,” but the type of laurels she is up for tend to be of the MTV Movie or Teen Choice Awards variety. Given the range she has demonstrated to date, it does not seem especially fair that she doesn’t land too many of the prime awards-bait roles that might go to Amy Adams or Jessica Chastain (two other actresses whom I unreservedly love, so don’t take them as anything but arbitrary examples).
That all might change with “True Detective.” Because while it feels that the more the question “who will get the career renaissance off Season 2 that Matthew McConaughey got in Season 1?” is asked, the more it feels like the answer is most likely “no one,” it is McAdams’ performance that’s arguably the most surprising, at least for those not well acquainted with her lesser-known films. Purposely de-glammed, practical and implied from the off to be into some kinky bedroom shit, her guarded Antigone (!) Bezzarides is as far from the sweetheart of “The Notebook” as imaginable. Even Vince Vaughn, with whom she reunites on the show after “Wedding Crashers” and unusually cast in a serious role, is still playing to type in the sense that he’s a slick, wary shark who prides himself on reading the room and being one step ahead of everyone else —it’s the character he often plays, minus the easy charm and the jokes. McAdams’ role is that bit more differentiated from the generalized idea of her persona, as much as such a thing exists.
Hopefully, the proceeding series will grant her the genuine showcase she deserves (and fewer overexplained scenes with her apparently mythologically-challenged guru father). In the meantime, if you want proof that while McAdams can indeed be cute as a button, she can also be sharp as a tack, hard as nails, or tough as old boots, here are five performances that might be good places to start.
“Mean Girls” (2004)
With her biggest role to that point being
in 2002’s “The Hot Chick,” which not even the most avid of McAdams’ fans
can bear to sit through more than once (only the nadir of the body-swap
genre would have anyone body-swapping with Rob Schneider), she was again cast as a bitchy high school Queen Bee in her very next film. But this time, it would be in the generation-defining high
school comedy “Mean Girls” directed by Mark Waters from the script by
Tina Fey. It’s funny that McAdams, whose subsequent star image often
plays on the inherently sympathetic appeal, should find
her first really great role as a villain, but that’s exactly what her
unforgettable Regina George is. Spoiled, petty, narcissistic and
manipulative, she is almost the antithesis of Romantic Lead McAdams (who
is invariably both steadfast and self-deprecating: “I look a bit like a
squirrel” she claims in “About Time“). As a result, it’s Regina who
comes in for the cruelest punishment. Still, although tricked into gaining weight,
stripped of her spiteful support system and eventually forced to attend
prom in a back brace, perhaps the cleverest part of McAdams’ performance
(along with Fey’s pin-sharp script) is that we don’t leave the movie
cackling at her downfall. Instead, there’s a genuine lesson in Regina’s
last-minute transformation into someone we actually care to see
redeemed, and that could only come from a performance in which the
character is inhabited as a person, rather than a cartoon character.
“It’s only funny when the sucker’s got dignity” quoth Krusty the Clown
on the philosophy of pie-throwing, but it stands for all great
pride-before-a-fall performances, and McAdams makes Regina George
simultaneously hateable, redeemable and damn funny. In a touchpoint film
littered with great performances from a cast running over with rising stars, hers might
be the powerhouse.
See Also: She doesn’t often play an
all-out baddie, but if you enjoy McAdams on cattier, more self-centered
form, Woody Allen‘s “Midnight in Paris,” which sees her reteam with her
“Wedding Crashers” co-star Owen Wilson, fits that bill. While I’m not
necessarily a huge fan of wildly overpraised film, McAdams’ turn as the
flinty, selfish and ultimately unfaithful fiance is a fun turn, if so
overladen with contrary tastes and opinions to Wilson’s Gil that you
wonder why on earth they’re together in the first place.
“Red Eye” (2005)
A perfectly formed little B-movie thriller
that’s elevated by superior direction from horror maestro Wes Craven,
“Red Eye” also boasts a great pair of central performances from McAdams
and Cillian Murphy. The actress, probably most associated with love stories, has
summoned up romantic chemistry with a variety of actors in her day,
most famously Ryan Gosling, but also Channing Tatum (“The Vow“), Owen
Wilson (“Wedding Crashers”), Michael Pena (“The Lucky Ones”) and so on,
but that talent for creating an onscreen relationship that’s more than the sum of its two parts displays
itself in other situations too. Like in this thriller setup, where
an initial frisson of attraction to Murphy’s psycho Jackson
runs through several shades of fear, anger, resolve,
and eventually rebellion and counteraction. The film is therefore at its most
effective when it keeps the two in close proximity: it’s a story told in
faces and eyes, his and hers, and is as much a demonstration of
chemistry as any clinch in the rain. And again, there’s something about
McAdams’ relatability that grounds this airborne thriller (no mean feat, considering part of the plot is an assassination attempt which will be
carried out by means of a rocket launched from a docked boat into a
hotel suite). But that’s not really the hook, which trades far
more on the simple fact that we have all at one time or another sat next
to a weirdo on a flight, and everyone who’s ever been in that situation
is suddenly aware of how very trapped you are, in a pressurized tube
thousands of feet in the air. What McAdams’ presence here demonstrates is just how much better schlocky, high-concept material can be made if
its actors commit to it as if it were Ibsen, and her performance renders it all the more scary because as ridiculous as the plot may get, we
believe her reactions and emotions, and can therefore all the more easily
imagine ourselves in her unenviable position.
See Also: “Red Eye”
was a success, but if you want to seek out McAdams in a sorta-thriller that
you probably haven’t seen, you could do worse than the weird, not-wholly
successful, slightly pastiche-y Hitchcockian riff “Married Life.” A dry
martini of a period film that stars Adams as the young lover of Chris
Cooper‘s adulterous and then murderous married man, it’s worth a
look for its great 1940s styling and McAdams as a fatale-ish blonde, but
mostly as a curious earlier work from a pre-“Keep the Lights On” and
“Love is Strange” Ira Sachs.
“The Lucky Ones” (2008)
It’s a subtle difference, but if this were a list of “best films featuring Rachel McAdams,” as opposed to her best
performances, I’d probably not be including Neil Burger‘s
awkward, contrivance-laden dramedy about three returning Iraq war
soldiers engaging in a “Planes Trains & Automobiles“-style
cross-country odyssey. But unsatisfying though the film is, it earns a
spot here because not only is McAdams great in it (along with an
also-terrific Michael Pena and a quiet but still impressive turn from
Tim Robbins), it shows a different facet to her talents. As Colee Dunn,
thrust into company with two fellow soldiers when flight cancellations necessitate a
rideshare road trip as their best chance of getting to Vegas,
McAdams is a vibrant, funny, changeable presence: she talks too much in
her twangy accent and meddles a great deal, but her goodness is palpable —a kind of ordinary, non-glamorous goodness. So even
while the plot become progressively less believable, she’s still
supremely easy to root for, and while some of the manufactured scrapes they get themselves into along the way make you genuinely worry
for a military that might be comprised of such folk, something about
her mixture of naiveté and toughness rings very true to the idea of any young person compelled to enlist in the army as their best means of earning an income. The film received fairly murderous reviews,
though even the nastiest often singled out the trio’s
performances as a strong point. And it was a total bomb at the box office,
like most other films with an Iraq war theme, which is a little
ironic since preachiness about war is not
really one of its numerous faults. In fact, the strongest aspects of the movie exist
outside the framework of the tiresome road movie/journey of self
discovery beats: its winning chemistry with Colee as the pivot, its
unfashionable sincerity, and the warmth of its treatment of its flawed
but hopeful characters, where McAdams again manages to transcend cliche
and contrivance to feel genuine amid so much that’s fake.
Also: For more amiable but low-stakes drama with McAdams as
its most appealing ingredient, you can also check out “Morning
Glory.” An attempt at a kind of Mike Nichols/Neil Simon-type vibe, it
also stars Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton as sparring cohosts on a
breakfast TV show the McAdams’ character produces, and while it lacks
urgency, it is diverting and good-natured and McAdams, unusually for such
a considerate team-player actress, pretty much steals the show.
“State of Play” (2009)
Kevin Macdonald‘s starry Hollywood reworking of the 6-part BBC TV series of the same name didn’t perform as well at the box office as you might expect for a film starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Robin Wright, Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman and Jeff Daniels, as well as McAdams. But it did give the actress, who’d had a couple of duds since her 2004/2005 breakout years, one of her best shots so far at proving she could not only play a non-romantic role, but could hold her own against heavyweight company. And she succeeds on both counts: one of the charms of this twisty thriller, weaving a complex plot out of high-level intrigue, political sex scandals, journalistic ethics and the uncomfortably topical issue of private Blackwater-style corporations taking over formerly state-controlled military operations, is that the filmmakers do not try to also crowbar a blossoming romance into the mix. Instead, as the “dewy-eyed cub reporter” as Mirren’s editor describes her, her relationship to Crowe’s schlubby, jaded but instinctively brilliant older journo is predicated on earning his respect through her professionalism, and McAdams brings a spiky sincerity to the role of a blogger suddenly thrust into the big leagues that is both endearing and admirable. Like the rest of the fine cast, she underplays and helps to ground what is a fairly convoluted story in some semblance of reality and almost incidentally delivers one of the best portraits of the newspaper business in the age of corporate media takeovers and blogging in recent memory.
See Also: Just as twisty, just as understated and just as good as “State of Play,” if considerably less glossy, is 2014’s “A Most Wanted Man.” An adaptation of a John Le Carre novel directed by Anton Corbijn, it will always be known as one of Philip Seymour Hoffman‘s last roles, and undoubtedly his last great one. But McAdams again steps up in this peerless company (though her accent wavers), and as an immigration lawyer caught up in this international spy plot, she projects a determined idealism as a kind of mirror image to the Hoffman character’s weary cynicism.
“About Time” (2013)
Richard Curtis‘ high-concept romantic comedy is much better than it has any right to be. Replete with familiar, standard-issue Curtisisms —a sappily romantic male lead (Domhnall Gleeson) who might as well have hearts for eyes, an endearingly bumbling voiceover, a deeply affectionate portrait of upper-middle British eccentricity— the film adds a rather loopy and not particularly logical time travel element herein to give things a supernatural slant. Early on, that’s all it appears to be: an excuse for Gleeson’s Tim to “Groundhog Day” his meet-cute with the very cute Mary (McAdams) until he gets it right and they both stroll off to the strains of some Ellie Goulding track. And that does happen —but the winning-the-girl aspect occurs less than halfway through the film, after which it becomes far more about a lifelong journey and ultimately about fathers and sons than it does a standard rom-com. McAdams is predictably adorable in those early parts, and it’s entirely believable that Tim would clap eyes on her once and move mountains to find her again. But seeing as this is a film which most problematically relies on Tim deceiving everyone he’s closest to, even Mary, as to the true nature of his abilities (with only the noblest of intentions of course), it would have been easy for her to come across as a cipher, if not a bit of a sap. But McAdams gives Mary just enough spine to her sweetness that even when the focus of the film shifts away from her in the last third, and even though she has to suffer through some rather cliché moments (Women! They can never decide what to wear!), we get an idea of her as a person intrinsically, and not just Tim’s reward for being a nice guy. Problems abound if you think about “About Time” even momentarily, but the film’s instinct to go beyond the “happily ever after” moment with this particular couple is a genuine treat.
See Also: You’re spoiled for choice if you want McAdams as a romantic lead, but if we are sticking with the generation-spanning, lifelong journey theme, “The Notebook” is pretty un-ignorable. While it might not be my cup of tea (not so much sugar, thanks), McAdams is very committed and winning in the role, selling the swooniness better than most actors could and rustling up appropriate Sparks with co-star Ryan Gosling. Less successful on every level was her other time-travel romance “The Time Traveler’s Wife” with Eric Bana, which has all the logic gaps of “About Time” with about half the heart.
There are various other roles that either felt too small or too much like another part to include above, but that the Advanced Rachel McAdams student may want to check out. Obviously there’s “Wedding Crashers” in which McAdams carries a role that in someone else’s hands could be a big ol’ buzzkill to the juvenile antics of bros Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. She is not just appealing in the way that might make a guy want to instantly change his entire outlook on life —she is also actually funny at times (even when her unfunniness is the subject of the gag, as during her awkward bridesmaid speech), and touching at others (as in her scenes with her dad, played by an uncharacteristically warm Christopher Walken). And of course there’s her turn in Terrence Malick‘s “To the Wonder,” which is as divisive a film as Malick has made (at least until “Knight of Cups” gets a release) and doesn’t give her a huge amount to do beyond trying to keep her hair out of her eyes in the wind, but she still manages to project more melancholic personality into her few scenes than Ben Affleck can in many more.
Hardly essential but interesting anyway: her sole franchise to date (she has miraculously avoided being sucked into the Marvel machine or the Dystopian Young Adult adaptation black hole so far) is Guy Ritchie‘s “Sherlock Holmes” movies, in which she plays Irene Adler —she’s apparently slated to return for the third installment, and certainly one of the many things wrong with the second was that it had so much less of her. We’d also be remiss in avoiding mention of “The Vow” with Channing Tatum, which is a load of drippy Valentine’s day claptrap (so boringly chaste!), and so of course made a gazillion quid, outstripping even “The Notebook” to become the 8th highest-grossing romantic drama of all time.
As for the future, 2015 by rights should have been the year of McAdams, with no fewer than five features due for release as well as “True Detective.” But while she lends her voice to the lovely animation “The Little Prince,” which we loved in Cannes, her next three 2015 titles are Cameron Crowe‘s poorly received “Aloha,” Antoine Fuqua‘s “Southpaw” which, good or bad, early reviews and a spoilery trailer suggest won’t have that much to do with her, and Wim Wenders‘ turgid Berlinale title “Every Thing Will Be Fine.” However more promisingly, coming up in November if not before, there’s “Spotlight” in which she co-stars with an amazingly stacked cast (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Billy Crudup, John Slattery) in the story of the Boston Globe’s expose of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. It’s a promising project with a great cast that has netted a prime awards slot and is co-written and directed by Thomas McCarthy who has some skin in the game, needing to reestablish his credentials after the major stumble of “The Cobbler.” Here’s hoping it will be the film to bring her non-button-related talents to wider attention: whatever the case, I’ll be first in line.