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Why is Denzel Washington playing it “Safe”?

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Everybody likes Denzel Washington. A steady film presence for 25 years, he’s won two Oscars, been nominated for three others, and been a consistently reliable box office performer. Perhaps even more importantly, he’s never jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch, never been indicted for tax evasion, and never been caught by TMZ making drunken, racist comments. Sure, he’s not always the warmest of interview subjects and Bronson Pinchot definitely doesn’t like the guy, but stacked up against most other Hollywood mega-stars, those sorts of quibbles are rather small potatoes. But at this stage of his career, Denzel’s likeability is, weirdly enough, starting to become his greatest liability. There used to be a time when we loved him. But it’s hard to love a career that seems to be stuck on autopilot.

That sense of dull inertia is very apparent in his latest film, “Safe House,” and like too many of his recent offerings it’s a solidly-crafted action-thriller that’s kinda forgettable but mostly works because of how effortlessly cool Denzel Washington is in it. While it’s true that most stars eventually just start playing themselves, the Washington who shows up as the rogue C.I.A. agent in “Safe House” isn’t all that different than the one who played the veteran train engineer in “Unstoppable” or the ruthless crime boss in “American Gangster.” Whether he’s the good guy or the bad guy, Washington is always the coolest guy on the screen — the man with the lethal charm, the man with the quickest wit.

This is hardly the worst thing in the world. Unlike a lot of action stars, Washington can actually act — as if to prove that point, he snagged a Tony in 2010 for his performance in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” — and his ability to lock into a dependable onscreen persona guarantees that anything he’s in will be elevated simply because of his presence.

But that’s part of Washington’s problem of late. The decent-enough “Safe House” is symptomatic of a lot of his recent work. Sure, he’s not slumming in dreck like “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” but when’s the last time Washington’s career choices really surprised anyone? 2007’s “American Gangster” was his last serious drama, although it wasn’t particularly inspired, and his last really great hit was 2006’s “Inside Man.” Instead, what you usually get from him these days are so-so Tony Scott vehicles or blandly inspirational dramas that he directs. It’s gotten to the point that he’s almost become a charismatic self-parody, which explains why Jay Pharoah’s dead-on spoofs of him on “Saturday Night Live” have been so funny. They’re not particularly mean — Washington is too likeable to really rip — but the send-ups nicely tear apart the actor’s overly familiar acting tics: the casually menacing glare, the off-kilter cadences, the hair-trigger laugh.

I don’t want to be too harsh. In “Safe House,” Washington’s as magnetic as always, and unlike a lot of A-listers, his movies don’t seem as if they’re designed simply as vanity projects. (In both “Safe House” and “Unstoppable,” he’s actually quite generous to his younger co-stars — Ryan Reynolds and Chris Pine, respectively — allowing them to shine in their own right.) And give Washington credit: because he’s never been obsessed with being the world’s biggest action star, he’s focused on sturdy, stylish, respectable thrillers that don’t seem ludicrous for someone his age to be in. (He turned 57 at the end of last year.) He’s only had two $100-million-plus films in the last 12 years, but he turns out consistent doubles commercially, which have allowed him to age gracefully — a rare feat.

But, ultimately, what have all those sensible career decisions brought him? The grittiness of “Devil in a Blue Dress” is now 17 years ago. The stunning embodiment of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s brilliant biopic is now two decades old. The genuinely daring turns — such as in “He Got Game” and “Training Day” — are starting to feel more like aberrations in his catalogue. Instead of pushing himself, Denzel Washington seems to have settled into a comfortable groove that does well enough with audiences and impresses enough critics that nobody really minds.

Still, watching “Safe House,” I felt like I had already seen this Washington enough. It’s an intense performance, but there’s oddly no sense of stakes to it. Washington has never been beset by scandal — he’s been married to the same woman for almost 29 years — and he’s also never really suffered from a downturn in his commercial clout. If you wanted to show a young actor how to conduct his career (and life), you’d point him in the direction of Washington. But, oddly enough, while an erratic star like Tom Cruise has had his shares of up and downs, at least he has a certain urgency that gives his movies a jolt. (Part of the fun of the most recent “Mission: Impossible” was Cruise’s all-in commitment to the terrific action sequences.) Washington is steady as a rock professionally, but I do worry that it’s neutered his sense of adventure in choosing roles. One of his generation’s best screen actors, he has too long being content to simply coast. Even worse, too many of us have gotten so used to this fact that we don’t even seem to care.

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Thank Azaria

Best. Characters. Ever.

Our favorite Hank Azaria characters.

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GIFs via Giphy

Hank Azaria may well be the most prolific voice and character actor of our time. The work he’s done for The Simpsons alone has earned him a permanent place in the pop culture zeitgeist. And now he’s bringing another character to the mainstream: a washed-up sports announcer named Jim Brockmire, in the aptly titled new series Brockmire.

We’re looking forward to it. So much so that we want to look backward, too, with a short-but-sweet retrospective of some of Azaria’s important characters. Shall we begin?

Half The Recurring Simpsons Characters

He’s Comic Book Guy. He’s Chief Wiggum. He’s Apu. He’s Cletus. He’s Snake. He’s Superintendent Chalmers. He’s the Sea Captain. He’s Kurt “Can I Borrow A Feeling” Van Houten. He’s Professor Frink. He’s Carl. And he’s many more. But most importantly he’s Moe Szyslak, the staple character Azaria has voiced since his very first audition for The Simpsons.

Oh, and He’s Frank Grimes

For all the regular Simpsons characters Azaria has played over the years, his most brilliant performance may have been a one-off: Frank Grimes, the scrappy bootstrapper who worked tirelessly all his life for honest, incremental, and easily-undermined success. Azaria’s portrayal of this character was nuanced, emotional, and simply magical.

Patches O’Houlihan

Dodgeball is a “sport of violence, exclusion and degradation.” as Hank Azaria generously points out in his brief but crucial cameo in Dodgeball. That’s sage wisdom. Try applying his “five D’s” to your life on and off the court and enjoy the results.

Harold Zoid

Of Futurama fame. The crazy uncle of Dr. Zoidberg, Harold Zoid was once a lion (or lobster) of the silver screen until Smell-o-vision forced him into retirement.

Agador

The Birdcage was significant for many reasons, and the comic genius of Hank Azaria’s character “Agador” sits somewhere towards the top of that list. If you haven’t seen this movie, shame on you.

Gargamel

Nobody else could make a live-action Gargamel possible.

Ed Cochran

From Ray Donovan. Great character, great last name [editorial note: the author of this article may be bias].

Kahmunra, The Thinker, Abe Lincoln

All in the Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian, a file that let Azaria flex his voice acting and live-action muscles in one fell swoop.

The Blue Raja

Mystery Men has everything, including a fatal case of Smash Mouth. Azaria’s iconic superhero makes the shortlist of redeemable qualities, though.

Dr. Huff

Huff put Azaria in a leading role, and it was good. So good that there is no good gif of it. Internet? More like Inter-not.

Learn more about Hank Azaria’s newest claim to fame right here, and don’t miss the premiere of Brockmire April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Flame Out

Brockmire and Other Public Implosions

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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There’s less than a month until the Brockmire premiere, and to say we’re excited would be an insulting understatement. It’s not just that it stars Hank Azaria, who can do no wrong (and yes, that’s including Mystery Men, which is only cringeworthy because of Smash Mouth). It’s that the whole backstory of the titular character, Jim Brockmire, is the stuff of legends. A one-time iconic sportscaster who won the hearts of fans and players alike, he fell from grace after an unfortunate personal event triggered a seriously public meltdown. See for yourself in the NSFW Funny or Die digital short that spawned the IFC series:

See? NSFW and spectacularly catastrophic in a way that could almost be real. Which got us thinking: What are some real-life sports fails that have nothing to do with botched athletics and everything to do with going tragically off script? The internet is a dark and dirty place, friends, but these three examples are pretty special and mostly safe for work…

Disgruntled Sports Reporter

His co-anchor went offsides and he called it like he saw it.

Jim Rome vs Jim “Not Chris” Everett

You just don’t heckle a professional athlete when you’re within striking distance. Common sense.

Carl Lewis’s National Anthem

He killed it! As in murdered. It’s dead.

To see more moments just like these, we recommend spending a day in your pajamas combing through the muckiness of the internet. But to see something that’s Brockmire-level funny without having to clear your browser history, check out the sneak peeks and extras here.

Don’t miss the premiere of Brockmire April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Mirror, Mirror

Portlandia Season 7 In Hindsight

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available Online and on the IFC App.

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Another season of Portlandia is behind us, and oh what a season it was. We laughed. We cried. And we chuckled uncomfortably while glancing nervously around the room. Like every season before it, the latest Portlandia has held a mirror up to ridiculousness of modern American life, but more than ever that same mirror has reflected our social reality in ways that are at once hysterical and sneakily thought-provoking. Here are just a few of the issues they tackled:

Nationalism

So long, America, Portland is out! And yes, the idea of Portland seceding is still less ludicrous than building a wall.

Men’s Rights

We all saw this coming. Exit gracefully, dudes.

Protests

Whatever you stand for, stand for it together. Or with at least one other person.

Free Love

No matter who we are or how we love, deep down we all have the ability to get stalky.

Social Status

Modern self-esteem basically hinges on likes, so this isn’t really a stretch at all.

These moments are just the tip of the iceberg, and much more can be found in the full seventh season of #Portlandia, available right now #online and on the #IFC app.

via GIPHY

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