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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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Marc Maron – Maron – Season 4, Episode 4

Behind the Anger

Marc Maron Gets Deep in an Interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross

Follow Marc's journey to recovery tonight at 9P on IFC.

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It ain’t no stage persona: Marc Maron is an anxious, angry, complicated fellow. In a recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, the Maron star described how he’s beset by constant anxiety, self-hatred, and general unease, which he considers his “uncomfortable” comfort zone. “Being sort of anxious and uncomfortable has really been my home base, innately,” he said. “And I don’t know how to change that, and that’s really the challenge for me now.”

A former addict himself, Marc also discussed the difficulty of portraying his TV character’s drug relapse, downfall, and rehabilitation — a fear he’s glad “happened in fiction and not in real life.”

Click here to listen to Marc Maron’s deep and revealing interview with NPR’s Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

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weird al goldbergs

Keep It Weird

10 Hilarious “Weird Al” Cameos

Weird Al comes to Comedy Bang! Bang! starting June 3rd at 11P.

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Photo Credit: ABC

“Weird Al” has had one of the most unique careers in entertainment history. Sure, he made his name with parody songs, but he’s long since transcended simply poking fun at pop, becoming an American comedy staple in the process. With his new gig behind the keyboard on IFC’s Comedy Bang! Bang!, we thought we’d take a look back at just a few of his classic pop culture cameos, in which he showed he was more than just the man with the accordion and rhyming dictionary.

10. The Goldbergs

“Weird Al” came full circle with this recent cameo on this ’80s-set sitcom, once again donning the frizzy hair, mustache and Hawaiian shirt to return to his glorious retro roots.


9. Galavant

Galavant, the historical musical comedy series, was recently canceled by ABC, but not before we got to see Al as a doo-wop crooning monk who’d taken a “vow of singing.”


8. Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp

Wet Hot Weird Al
Netflix

With Wet Hot American Summer making a triumphant return last summer, we all should have known they would work in a bit in which “Weird Al” played a summer camp hypnotist who turned into assassin Jon Hamm.


7. Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Wet Hot Batman
Cartoon Network

“Weird Al” creates music for all ages, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he occasionally pops up on Saturday Morning cartoons, like this turn on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, in which he got to battle the Joker and the Penguin alongside Batman, Robin and Scooby-Doo.


6. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!

Al has popped up on Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s bizarre ode to anti-comedy series a few times, but this wedding fever dream, straight out of the mind of a serial killer, really sort of sums it all up, whatever “all” is.


5. 30 Rock

Al is a man of many talents, but at the end of the day, he knows how to rip out a parody song with some bite. Here he puts his gifts to good use, writing lyrics to the 30 Rock theme song, and highlighting their lack of ratings in the process.


4. Halloween II

“Weird Al” shows up in just about the last place you would expect here, in Rob Zombie’s hard R horror remake. Playing a guest on what looks like an early version of Talking Dead, Al does some typical talk show shtick alongside Michael Meyers’ ethically compromised doctor, Samuel Loomis.


3. Transformers: Animated

Al has quite a history with the Transformers. His song “Dare to be Stupid” was used in 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie, and he also popped up as Wreck-Gar, a simple-minded robot brought to life by the All Spark, on Transformers: Animated.


2. The Naked Gun

Al’s stardom was ascendant in 1988, if this classic gag from Naked Gun was any indication. (He also did the theme song for the 1996 Leslie Nielsen comedy Spy Hard.)


1. Amazing Stories, “Miss Stardust”

Weird Al
NBC

Al’s first TV cameo might just be his, ahem, weirdest. As an alien affectionately known as “Cabbage Man,” “Weird Al” made quite the impression without even needing his trusty accordion.

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Sally Kellerman- Maron – Season 4, Episode 5

Hello Sally

5 Roles That Prove Sally Kellerman Is a Comedic Genius

Sally Kellerman returns to Maron this Wednesday at 9P on IFC.

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With her statuesque beauty and sarcastic verve, Sally Kellerman has put her stamp on several iconic TV and film roles. She always gave as good as she got, keeping her leading men on their toes. With Toni Maron returning to help Marc through a tough time on Wednesday’s brand new Maron, we thought it was time to revisit a few of Sally’s classic roles that prove she’s more woman than most of us can handle.

5. Judge Henderson, Moving Violations

Playing a saucy judge with a taste for bondage, Kellerman got to go full-on villain in this absurd comedy starring lesser Murray brother Joel. Who needs Bill when you’ve got Sally in a full leather getup?


4. Louise, Brewster McCloud

It takes some real talent to make a conversation about remaining celibate this sexy. Kellerman turns up the heat here, mixing sensuality with a mythic quality (she may be a fallen angel of some sort in this movie), that makes us want to forget Brewster’s dream of flying, and just spend a little more time with her on the ground.


3. Maron

Whether she’s dropping passive aggressive comments or searching for his love handles, Toni is the perfect representation of all of Marc Maron’s neuroses.


2. Back to School

Holey moley, when literature professor Dr. Diane Turner starts reading some sexy prose to her class, Rodney Dangerfield isn’t the only one whose eyes nearly pop out of his head. Kellerman proves yet again that she can mix class and crass with the best of them, playing the type of woman you can discuss erotic literature with — or just live it out with.


1. M*A*S*H

In perhaps her most iconic part, the one that scored her an Oscar nom, Kellerman plays the apple of a whole army base’s eye. It’s far from easy getting that kind of attention in the middle of a war zone, which Kellerman shows with one truly epic meltdown. Major “Hot Lips” Houlihan would make anyone’s grandpa’s war stories a littler bit easier to listen to.

Watch how Toni comes back into Marc’s life on this week’s Maron. 

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