Friday, November 19, 2010

Jack Black Attack!

While biding time for the long-awaited Tenacious D film, “The Pick of Destiny,” Jack Black fans can sate their lust for Jables with “Nacho Libre” in theaters this week. So we thought it’d be a good time to take a look at the career of JB.

It seems fitting that one of young Jack Black’s first acting gigs was in a commercial for Smurfberry Crunch cereal since he’s been floating on a sugar buzz ever since. After dropping out of UCLA in 1989, Jack Black (nee Thomas Black) joined Tim Robbins’ theater troupe, The Actor’s Gang, which led to his first film role in Robbins’ 1992 political satire “Bob Roberts.”

For the next eight years, Black worked steadily, playing tiny parts in over 20 films, including “The Never Ending Story III” (1994), “Waterworld” (1995), “Dead Man Walking” (1995), “Mars Attacks!” (1996) and “Enemy of the State” (1998). He appeared on TV shows like Northern Exposure, The Single Guy, the X-Files and Touched by an Angel (!!). Most notably during this time, JB was a semi-regular on the brilliant sketch comedy, “Mr. Show with Bob and David” on HBO.

“Mr. Show” helped Black hone a comedic style that would explode towards the end of the decade. 1999 was a key year for Jack Black. A cult following was growing due to his parts in “Mr. Show” and also Tenacious D, his folk-metal band with partner Kyle Gass. Sometimes known as the greatest and best rock band in the world, the D starred in a number of shorts for HBO that displayed a smart, yet twisted sensibility.

It was here that Black’s two passions, comedy and rock and roll, fused inexorably. There’s an old cliché that all rock stars want to be comedians, and vice versa. Usually when the two worlds collide, the results are less than spectacular (Eddie Murphy’s musical career became a bigger joke than anything in his routine). Jack Black is the first comedian since John Belushi who seems equally comfortable in both worlds... and can mix them better than anyone.

That mix fueled Black’s true breakout, the 2000 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.” As record store employee / music snob / wannabe rock star Barry, Black stole the movie from star John Cusack (and who doesn’t love John Cusack?). Barry is self-absorbed, impatient, judgmental, slovenly, callous and at times mean. So why the heck is he so likable? At the end of the film, when his new band, Barry Jive & the Uptown Five busts into an amazingly great cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On,” everyone (both onscreen and in the audience) is shocked, but, darnit, happy that Barry actually pulls it off.

That’s the key to Black’s appeal: He can be the most obnoxious character in a movie, but even if he tried (and he really hasn’t), he can’t hide his charisma. Black possesses an innate likability allows him to get away with anything.

“High Fidelity” made JB a star, and the next year, he was the male lead opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the Farrelly Brothers’ “Shallow Hal.” Black plays the titular character, a would-be womanizer whose Supermodel standards are not quite in line with his somewhat lacking demeanor, attitude and appearance. When Hal is hypnotized into only seeing inner beauty, he falls in love with the 300 pound Rosemary (Gwyneth in a fat suit). The movie (including its requisite happy ending) is only somewhat satisfying, but were anyone else to play Hal, it would’ve fallen completely flat. The character needed to be both reprehensible and endearing, a truly difficult hat trick. If “Shallow Hal” had starred Adam Sandler or David Spade or David Cross, you never would have bought the climactic epiphany.

Black kept busy, playing schlubby funny guys in “Saving Silverman” (2001) and “Orange County” (2002), doing small cameos in the unreleased 2002 Mr. Show spin-off film, “Run Ronnie Run” and “Melvin Goes To Dinner” (2003) and voicing Zeke the Sabretooth Tiger in “Ice Age” (2002).

But perhaps the most quintessential Jack Black role came in 2003 in Richard Linklater’s “School of Rock.” Black shines as Dewey Finn, another wannabe rock star who poses as his roommate to take a job as a substitute teacher at a prep school strictly for the cash. When Dewey discovers his adolescent students have some musical talent, he hatches a scheme to turn them into his new band. Dewey’s motives are completely selfish at the outset, but he soon teaches the kids invaluable lessons in self-esteem, questioning authority and following your dreams. Yeah, it sounds treacly, and, again, in lesser hands, it would’ve been. But once more, Black’s impeccable mixture of manic energy, rock attitude and affability makes “School of Rock” one of those rare films that’s perfect for everyone from little kids to jaded aging punk rockers. It’s uplifting without being annoying.

If Black has one weakness, it’s a lack of range. While the idea of Jack Black as film impresario Carl Denham in last year’s “King Kong” initially sounded like a great bit of inspired casting, the end result was a bit... off. Black’s unshakeable personality just seems a bit too modern to comfortably fit into a period piece set in the 1930s.

But Jack Black is still young, as is his career. And if he is the true heir to John Belushi’s throne, the key difference is, Black doesn’t seem destined to self-destruct. We’ll get to see how he evolves as a performer, and frankly, we can’t wait. Maybe he’ll grow as an actor in much the way Bill Murray has in his mid-life. But even if he doesn’t, even if Jack Black remains the slobby smart-ass with rock and roll chops at the age of 65, we have a feeling he’ll be able to get away with it.

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