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Jake Johnson is (almost) the antidote to bloated blockbusters

June 9th, 2017
Tessa

FILM SCHOOL REJECTS – The professional grump has made a name for himself by undermining mediocre (or worse) tentpoles.

The verdict is in: The Mummy is a total mess. Maybe 10% of it being any fun. Jake Johnson plays sidekick Chris Vail in a tiny amount of the film, having a great and very strange rapport with Tom Cruise that seems lifted straight from David Naughton and Griffin Dunne’s ball-busting in An American Werewolf in London. The actor was also, somehow, the best part of Jurassic World, where he plays an incredulous IT guy named Lowery. Neither part was large enough and neither movie was any good. You do the math. But is this a trend or just a once-repeated phenomenon?

Johnson is perhaps most well-known for his lead role in the TV comedy New Girl as, well, basically the same sad sack he plays in most of his movies. But recently, he’s really broken out as an indie leading man in the movies Drinking Buddies and Win It All. He’s an everyman, but not like Tom Hanks is an everyman. He’s angry and frustrated and petty, not as idealized as Hanks’s soft boyishness. This is the guy whose brand of grumpy has completely saturated his professional being to the point that he voiced Grumpy Smurf in Smurfs: The Lost Village. But what people don’t appreciate enough about Johnson is that he’s the perfectly frustrated comic character actor to help bloated blockbusters.

In a corporate landscape so bafflingly smug that Universal really announced its multi-film Dark Universe franchise before press screenings tore the overstuffed origin story, The Mummy, to pieces, it’s nice to be grounded every once in a while. Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Invisible Man have already been announced while the first movie in this prospective universe is in the critical gutter. It’s below even the dismal ratings of most DCEU films, and the studio has effectively put all its eggs in this permeable basket.

Why Universal decided to jam an entirely separate story starring Russell Crowe as the multi-accented Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is beyond me, but I’m crediting it to a lack of pessimism in their lives. It’s the same asinine naïveté that led to the objectively silly spinning globe logo of Dark Universe that follows the Universal logo before the movie even begins. It’s too much hopeful greed and not enough artistic restraint — a problem to which Jake Johnson is a living counterbalance.

In both The Mummy and Jurassic World, Johnson plays unhappy audience surrogates in giant “we don’t care about the critics, we care about the fans” blockbusters. His characters complain and whine and point out how much they hate being in the movie like they were starring in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes about the movies instead of the movies themselves. In The Mummy his voice breaks and screams, undermining the calculated masculinity of co-star Cruise with vocal vulnerability. In Jurassic World, his character is rejected where other leading men may find a love interest. In fact, these characters would be almost subversive if they ever had more than 10 minutes of screen time.

The way they are now, they act more like screenwriter ass-covering. They’re the kind of cinematic bet-hedging that allows comedy to reinforce the disbelief suspension required by these movies. If Cruise and Johnson are military men that also loot ancient relics for sale on the black market and then start a firefight before uncovering the mummy’s tomb, it helps if at least one player in this ridiculous scenario is aware of its insanity.

The downside of this decision is that it means that the majority of characters in this situation are therefore unaware of how weird the movie’s plot is and react accordingly, which is to say like aliens or robots. Either they act so strangely that their behavior is completely inhuman or they have such tepid responses to the madness in their lives that they seem emotionless. This is no way to live, which is why Johnson’s manic realizations are the best comic relief. It’s not that we’re laughing at his pain and fear, or even his raspy, angry shouts of pain and fear. We’re laughing because finally, FINALLY, someone in this film recognizes its stupidity.

Johnson is the perfect vessel for this insufficient self-awareness. He’s scruffy, lovable, and completely out of his depth. Those are the same reasons we loved it when Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones sighed, shrugged, and eye-rolled: they’re sprinklings of humanity in a world that seems so far removed from them. A saber-spinning cultist, a heart-yanking shaman — these mystical villains are completely undone as soon as we’re able to recognize a tired professor behind our hero’s whip and hat.

The criminal thing here is that Johnson’s characters aren’t the leads. They’re not the Cruise and Chris Pratt action heroes that fearlessly (and emotionlessly) trek through danger like another set of monotonous crunches for their perfectly-toned bodies. His characters are on the fringes, promises of much weirder movies that simply don’t exist. This is why Johnson, no matter how fun in his small roles, can’t save these gigantic films. He’s just not positioned for it. If anything, his positioning as the small rain cloud pouring delicious dissent over these unstoppable superfilms makes his Sisyphic plight all the sadder. The sidelining of the thinking, feeling, most-human characters in these movies makes for a successful formula — but terrible movies. He simply can’t be an effective antidote in these doses. But damn, do I respect him for trying.