Jack Black, whose Kung Fu Panda opens this week, seemed to move awfully quickly from rising star to overexposed. His always-moving, rock 'n' roll persona seems to be everywhere, turning up in several movies a year, always pitched at the same high level. It's all too easy to concentrate on his most annoying performances, as lazy fast-talkers, or selfish schemers in films like Saving Silverman, Shallow Hal, Envy and The Holiday. But a closer look at his filmography shows more than a few samples of the Jack Black that we initially liked and elevated to stardom.
1. High Fidelity (2000)
This was the first time Black came onto my radar, although he had previously been in at least 30 other movies and TV shows. It's arguably the first time he tapped into the Jack Black persona for the length of an entire movie, and he was nicely fitted in the mix between cool, confused John Cusack and Todd Louiso (as the withdrawn music nerd). His was a supporting role, rather than a lead, which is the best place for a character actor of his caliber. Moreover, Black played a nerd with a wide-ranging knowledge of music, implying that he was at least using his brain for something (as opposed to many of his other films). As for his performance, he showed enough natural, unhinged exuberance (especially in his surprise rendition of "Let's Get It On") that, frankly, he deserved an Oscar nomination.
2. School of Rock (2003)
Black in lead role is never a good idea, but director Richard Linklater is a master at creating a thoughtful, lackadaisical pace, so that Black could relax and spread out, jabbering away or jamming with his young students, regardless of any upcoming plot mechanics. The unhurried pace, plus the calming presence of the children, made this one a delight.
3. Jesus' Son (2000)
Just a few months after High Fidelity, Black confirmed his talent in this not-quite-there adaptation of one of my favorite books. He played Georgie, a spaced-out hospital orderly, working alongside the hero FH (for "Fuckhead") (Billy Crudup) and scoring drugs together. In my original review, I called Black a "stellar character actor," and complaining about the casting of Crudup, I wrote: "the powerful actor Jack Black should have had the FH role in this film."
4. Margot at the Wedding (2007)
I wasn't a fan of this tortured Noah Baumbach film, but while the other characters whined and moaned their way through the material, Black miraculously stepped up and found a comfortable home; his acting style somehow fit just right and became the rock-solid center of the chaos.
5. Dead Man Walking (1995)
Early on, Black fell in with Tim Robbins, who helped nurture his career throughout the 1990s. For this Oscar-winner, Robbins cast Black in a tiny role as Craig Poncelet, the brother of convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), coming to the prison for an awkward visit. There's no hint of the Black persona here, though he does play an obviously brain-dead hick (talking about girls and dating with his soon-to-die brother). Nevertheless, Black gets into the overpowering spirit of the scene and certainly doesn't ruin it.
6. Be Kind Rewind (2008)
I think I liked this movie more than most folks; it's sort of like the High Fidelity of video stores, with Black once again in a welcome supporting role as "Jerry." His only job is to act funny and/or annoying while the more capable Mos Def handles the dramatic, character arc stuff as "Mike." The film itself keeps at a comic distance; Mike's boss warns him to keep Jerry out of the store, which is where all the trouble starts.
This is a throwaway, but I had to put it in here because it was so much fun. When Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) visits a spiritual Indian guru, he's joined by the Beatles: Jack Black as Paul McCartney, Paul Rudd as John Lennon, Justin Long as George and Jason Schwartzman as Ringo Starr. It's a short scene, but it's note-perfect and hilarious.