Awards aren’t usually given to body parts, but Colin Farrell’s gut in “The Lobster” deserves special consideration. It’s not especially impressive as far as movie paunches go; it falls well short of Robert De Niro’s blubbery physique in “Raging Bull,” to say nothing of Jared Leto’s in “Chapter 27.” But that’s what’s great about it. It’s enough to change the way we look at Farrell, the way he moves, even the way he breathes, but it never takes center stage. It’s a supporting role, not the lead.
In February, I argued that Leonard DiCaprio winning an Oscar for “The Revenant” — an extreme likelihood then, history now — would “demonstrate once [the Academy’s] toxic habit of confusing accomplishment with effort.” And I still think that’s true. It’s bad enough when people outside of the business get the two mixed up, but at least it’s understandable: It’s easy to assume that the acting that looks the hardest must be the hardest, and if Olympics judges factor in degree of difficulty, shouldn’t we, too? If an actor’s doing something we’ve seen before or hewing too close to their public persona, we assume they’re just playing themselves, never stopping to think how difficult that might be.
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Hollywood pays its stars well, but it tends to undervalue them as actors, at least when it comes time to vote: Cary Grant, famously, was nominated for Best Actor only twice, and one of those was for Clifford Odets’ “None But the Lonely Heart,” an uncharacteristically dour turn in which Grant plays a Cockney drifter whose mother is dying of cancer. He was finally awarded with an honorary Oscar in 1970, four years after his last film.
Farrell has spent much of his career toggling between actor and movie star. If the pattern’s not quite one for them/one for me, the back-and-forth is nonetheless consistent: “Alexander” followed by “The New World;” “Miami Vice,” followed by “Cassandra’s Dream” and “In Bruges.”
But for an actor once billed as one of Hollywood’s hottest young stars after his turn in Joel Schumacher’s “Tigerland,” Farrell has never shown much interest in acting like a movie star, at least on screen. He may have embraced a fast-living lifestyle, at least before getting sober in 2006, but the careful crafting of an offscreen persona that could be replicated or riffed on is evidently not for him. If you were picking Ferrell films for a time capsule, you’d start at the bottom of the box-office list, not the top: “Ondine” and “A Home at the End of the World,” yes; “S.W.A.T.” or “Total Recall,” no. (Let’s agree to pretend “Daredevil” never happened.)
In a way, Farrell is more engrossing the less he has to do; he’s better still than in motion, although his rapid-fire collaborations with Martin McDonagh prove him one of the champion talkers in contemporary cinema. The reported 45 pounds he put on for “The Lobster” fits his character, David, whose wife of 12 years has recently left him for another man, but the weight drags him closer to the ground, and makes his body, which we’ve seen plenty of times in other films, a new object of study. Director Yorgos Lanthimos shoots him from behind in a pair of white underpants, his love handles spilling over the sides, showing us the unfamiliar silhouette before the familiar face.
Actors who allow themselves to look other than perfect are often praised for their lack of vanity. But there’s a kind of reverse vanity as well, as if we’re meant to be impressed by how awful they’ve made themselves look. Around the turn of the millennium, the beautiful-woman-makes-herself-ugly trope was a surefire route to an Oscar nomination: “Monster” is far from Charlize Theron’s best performance, but it’s the one that’s most visibly a performance. Compare it to Theron in “Young Adult,” especially the purposefully unflattering semi-nude scene where she strips down to pantyhose and falsies: It’s a moment of quiet, mundane vulnerability rather than a pyrotechnic display of talent, one of those exceedingly rare instances when you can look at someone you’ve seen in a dozen movies and still see an ordinary person.
In “The Lobster,” Farrell’s acting is so stripped down it barely seems like acting at all. Along with the rest of the cast, he restricts his voice to a near-monotone, a few notes on the scale at best. Lanthimos’ dystopian world is a place where the pressure to pair off is ferocious — single adults are given 45 days to find a suitable mate or else be literally stripped of their humanity, changed into animals through some gruesomely inexplicable surgical procedure — but the most intense emotion we see expressed is anger, not love.
Even Rachel Weisz’ narration sounds furious, the flat, sharp-edged voice of someone telling a story she’d rather not recount. Given these circumstances, it would be easy for the performances, and the film as a whole, to seem lifeless and repetitive, as devoid of humanity as the world it depicts. (There are certainly critics who agree with that last part.) That’s where the gut comes in.
Without the gut, David’s sluggishness and general apathy might seem merely weak, not to mention sticking the movie with the problem of explaining why Colin Farrell can’t get laid. With the gut he’s pitiable, with the added poignancy of the audience knowing that if he’d just lose a few pounds and occasionally hit the gym, he could look like a bonafide sex symbol. His blobby, slope-shouldered presence says so much that Farrell doesn’t have to overplay David’s hesitancy or his awkwardness, as natural extroverts often do. There’s nothing quite like watching a famous actor half-sink into the skin of a socially inept character, which is usually as convincing as when supermodels insist they couldn’t get dates in high school.
Great film acting is often a matter of doing just enough, letting us catch the flicker of an idea or the dawn of a new emotion as if it’s a secret we share with the screen. The sly minimalism of Farrell’s performance in “The Lobster” forces us to lean in close, even as we might be tempted to recoil from the barren ugliness of the world Lanthimos has created. We know there’ll be a big, soft belly to lay our heads on when we do.