In his 1966 essay entitled “The Subverters,” Manny Farber hoped “for a new award at the year’s end: Most Subversive Actor.” His complete film criticism, “Farber On Film,” was published this year, and in his honor I’m submitting a list of five nominees for this wished-for fake trophy. But his definition of “subversive” is a tricky one — at the beginning of the essay, he describes the “subversive nature of the medium: the flash-bomb vitality that one scene, actor, or technician injects across the grain of a film.”
For Farber, movies are complex mechanisms built upon the collision of artistic temperaments, not monoliths that can be encapsulated in a single theme, performance or mood. So he focuses on the small, telling details that exist on the outskirts of the plot, thrilling to actors who “can ply around the edges, trying to budge a huge, flabby movie script”. It’s the marvel of individual expression breaking through a multiplicity of voices — directors, set designers, writers — that he deems subversive, and I hope this list captures the spirit of this thought. [Spoilers ahead for “Zombieland.”]
Michael C. Hall in “Gamer”
As Ken Castle, a guffawing young Southern tech-tycoon, Michael C. Hall provides the charismatically evil center for Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s deliriously messy “Gamer.” A Mark Cuban-type billionaire, Castle is the inventor of “Society” and “Slayers,” two live-action video games where players control real human beings. “Society” is his porno version of “The Sims,” while “Slayers” is his first-person shooter and PPV smash hit. Hall oozes his way on-screen with an ingratiating tenor that drawls out corporate double-talk with an ease and smirk that makes everything he says sound like a dirty joke. The key to his performance, though, is the whiplash-inducing quality of his movements. He continually starts in a relaxed position, echoing the molasses-slow speed of his voice, until he lands on a point of emphasis, when he curls up his lip or wields his hands like a pen knife, slashing the air like he’s slicing open a patient. These pinprick movements pay off in an astonishing fashion in the final sequence, when he pantomimes the angular, jerky moves of a puppet to the tune of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” mocking the power he has over his human game pieces.
Kathryn Hahn in “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard”
With quiet indignity, Kathryn Hahn is becoming the most fearless comedic actress in Hollywood. After stealing “Step Brothers” out from under Will Ferrell with her raucously violent sexuality, she sketched another dark portrait of the female id in “The Goods, ” a hit-or-miss gag reel that killed every time Hahn appeared on-screen. She plays Babs Merrick, part of a team of traveling used car salespeople who rent out their services to struggling franchises. Hahn aims for a kind of blowsy cynicism with the heavily made-up Merrick, persistently pouting her lips and implanting her hands on her hips to emphasize this loner’s fading sensuality. Hahn has an unerring sense of how to push her self-destructive characters over the edge. She wields a cutting deadpan that escalates quickly into sheer panic – as in her fruitless pursuit of a manly-looking ten-year old (Rob Riggle), which has her flap her lids and bite her lips before exploding into ecstatic vulgarities that would make Lenny Bruce blush.
Jemaine Clement in “Gentlemen Broncos”
Jemaine Clement and director Jared Hess have created an entrancingly deluded character in Ronald Chevalier, a blithering idiot highlight in this otherwise blandly amiable misfire. A sci-fi writer who dabbles in erotic art and plagiarism, he’s equal parts bombast and insecurity, papering over his manifest failures with feathered helmet hair and an absolute lack of self-awareness (he wears a Bluetooth headset but always talks on a cell). Desperate for inspiration for his next novel, he swipes a story from a teen’s literary contest submission and remains oblivious to the consequences. He’s a human non-sequitur, speaking with an uncannily froggy voice that starts in the back of his throat and then seems to come out through his nose, and parades around in outfits that combine Native American leisure wear with the finest pleather vests. His movements are strangely robotic, looking like an unathletic Frankenstein’s monster as he stumbles back from the righteous blows of the original author.
Laurence Fishburne in “Armored”
Nimrod Antal’s taut thriller is motored by the no-frills performances of his unshaven cast, highlighted by the grunting decadence of Laurence Fishburne’s Baines, who leads a group of armored truck drivers to fake a heist and hide the money for themselves. When the plan falls apart, loyalties are divided and expire entirely as they slowly devour each other to the time-keeping clank of steel on steel, attempting to wrench open a reinforced vehicle door. Fishburne seems to revel in his aging body, puffing out his gut and emitting a chorus of groans, mutters and sighs as his flesh battles against him. Antal provides him with a slender backstory — he’s a married drunk — and Fishburne nails the cliché down so hard that it ends up ringing with truth. You can almost smell the alcohol in his sweat as he laughs too hard at bad jokes, simply to pass the time, and one waits for his self-loathing to spread outward into violence.
Bill Murray in “Zombieland” (Spoilers!)
Bill Murray is an oasis of subtlety and absurdity in the otherwise thuddingly conventional “Zombieland.” Essentially a romantic comedy spiced up with the undead, the film is a parade of clichés, product placement and eager overacting. But when the group of human survivors crash at Murray’s place, the rote narrative is suspended for a sequence of pure playfulness anchored by his classic deadpan. Wobbling in with a fake wig and fright makeup to fit in with the brain-eaters, he massages the cutesy pop-culture dialogue into serviceable punchlines. The whole Eddie Van Halen run is saved by his bluntly matter-of-fact delivery of “he’s a zombie,” paired with a nonchalant shoulder shrug to emphasize the banality of the situation. It’s a minor joke, but he makes it work through canny underplaying. His best bit, though, is his slow-burn exhale during his untimely demise, knowing exactly the number of beats it will take for the gag to register. But once he dies, the movie dies with it.
[Additional photos: “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” Paramount Vantage, 2009; “Gentlemen Broncos,” Fox Searchlight, 2009; “Armored,” Screen Gems, 2009; “Zombieland,” Columbia Pictures, 2009]