[11 August 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
That’s it. I’ve had it. I am officially at my character actor capacity. Nothing personal on the man in question, but after a summer where it seems like he shows up in every movie made, I am over Danny McBride - just about. Again, this is not meant to be an individual criticism or a knock against who he is off screen. But in a world where thousands of actors remain unemployed or underemployed, is it really fair to feature this funnyman over and over again?
I first became aware of Danny’s jarhead joking in last year’s lamentably awful Heartbreak Kid remake. There, he was the bone brained brother of Michelle Monaghan’s Amanda. It was also here where I was initiated into the McBride “type” - not quite hillbilly, not actually intelligent, just a beefy buffoon with a bad haircut and a head full of Red State resentment. It was a persona he would carry on to his next supporting part, as a homeless pal of the title character in the disappointing Drillbit Taylor.
As Don, a casual criminal with a definite psychotic streak, McBride more than made up for the scripts underwhelming attributes. Even better, his scenes were short and sweet, never overstaying their welcome or announcing their arrival. In fact, it’s safe to say that, at this point, I was willing to tolerate this beery bumpkin in carefully controlled creative bursts. Use him right, and his appearance would only add to the onscreen mayhem. But use him wrong and, well…
Oddly enough, all careful consideration was thrown for a loop when I finally saw The Foot Fist Way. Made back in 2006, this starring vehicle for the Georgia-based actor found McBride playing a pompous, self-important Tae Kwon Do instructor who tries to corral his action hero idol into a personal appearance at his failing martial arts school. So real in its mock doc execution and brave in its outright arrogance that it was scary, this film found a way to take McBride’s inherent ill-advised machismo and make it multifaceted. Even better, it signaled that he could stretch beyond the white trash troublemakers he seemed to excel at.
Thanks to Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Foot Fist finally got a wide distribution, and with such a profile, McBride has become almost omnipresent. This month alone he turns up in two of the Summer’s most highly anticipated releases. In Pineapple Express, he’s the urban idiot dope peddler Red, attempting to address all of his problems both personal and criminal with a smile and smatter of misinformed rap lingo. Even with his limited time onscreen, he rivals James Franco for best overall performance in this clever action/stoner amalgamation. Then, in Tropic Thunder, he is Cody, the special effects artist who has a bad case of hero worship for those he works with, and an even shakier grasp of pyrotechnic professionalism.
In both instances, McBride is very good. While relying on a similar skill set - one that trades on his flabby physicality while adding a satisfying and unwashed stupidity - he manages to make each lummox likeable and different. In each film, he creates such a compelling presence that you can’t wait for his next anticipated manifestation. Red, in particular, provides some last act heroics that help sell Pineapple‘s switch over into ‘80s styled stunt spectacle. Indeed, it’s safe to say that in each instance mentioned, MrBride adds to the movies he’s in. He’s the true definition of a supporting (or in the case of Foot Fist, starring) presence.
So why am I so fed up? Why am I praising this man only to argue for his future limited use? The answer is not as simple as it seems. Maybe it’s because he’s so good at what he does. It could be his purposeful pigeonholing into the aforementioned personality types. Perhaps it’s because, like all Hollywood decisions, his casting comes off as being as much about laziness and lack of vision as it is talent. Watching him work, one can literally hear the suits saying to themselves “that McBride sure makes a great blue collar cretin. Instead of that Cable Guy, let’s get him”.
This is obviously meant in jest, and stands as a gross overgeneralization of why McBride is seemingly everywhere at once. But never underestimate Tinsel Town’s track record of tendencies. In the last two years alone, balding boob Rob Corddry has been in 11 films - 11! - and always playing the same insecure schlub with either an anger management issue or an advanced case of marital emasculation. Similarly, David Koechner has racked up 16 such turns. Usually employing a stereotypical drawl to accent his Southern Comfort crackerdom, he’s another of these supposedly bankable morons. One can just see a casting director, looking over head shots and sighing “Oh HELL!, Just get me Koechner (or perhaps Corddry)”.
Again, this is not meant to take away from these otherwise talented men. But since movies are no longer based in artistry, but instead rely on a baffling business model which hopes to guarantee successful before a single frame is shot or screened, past performance - including the all important box office receipts - rule most decisions. In Corddry’s case, he’s got Old School, Blades of Glory, and the nauseating I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry pushing his paydays. Koechner gets the aid of the Apatow touch, supposedly helping Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and Talladega Nights earn its considerable keep. They can fail together as well. Both were in the bafflingly unfunny Get Smart update.
Naturally, these men were ancillary to such success, but studios sometimes fail to see the forest for the financial windfall. McBride may just be the latest example of such a schema. Or perhaps it’s all about ability. After all, no one is questioning his (or anyone else’s) worthiness. But what those in charge fail to recognize is that familiarity, while maybe not breeding actual contempt, creates reservations in the audience’s mind. When we see a certain face standing next to our above the marquee A-lister, the sense of déjà vu is overwhelming, and since most are hired merely to create such easy awareness, constant repetition leads to more and more pre-knowledge. Soon, we are guessing the beats that will color their performance and wondering why they were brought on in the first place.
And since I like McBride (for now), I don’t want to see him stifled. I don’t want him standing in the backdrop, mangled mullet substituting for actual characterization. There seems to be so much more that he can offer a project (again I am reminded of his work in Pineapple Express) that he doesn’t deserve such stereotyping. By proclaiming my tolerance topped off, perhaps others will join in. Call it a boycott or a non-focus group lesson, but Hollywood needs to learn that not every facet of a successful film will, individually, work the same magic. Danny McBride’s borderline overexposure won’t only prove this out, but it threatens to destroy a career just starting to spark. And even though I’ve had my fill, he clearly deserves better.