Lost in the mists of the pre-history of the 90s is the knowledge that Jack Black was once cool. He would pop up on Mr. Show as a supporting player and often be great - his appearance as Slacker Jesus in the Mr. Show sketch Jeepers Creepers Semi-Star was, for me, an announcement of pending greatness.
Black later went on to star in the legendary unaired pilot Heat Vision and Jack, directed by Ben Stiller and written and produced by future Community creator Dan Harmon and Scud: The Disposable Assassin creator Rob Schrab. The story of an astronaut who has super intelligence during the day and his buddy, who has been merged with a motorcycle, Heat Vision and Jack is hilarious and weird and a reminder that at one point people like Stiller and Black and Owen Wilson (who played the voice of the bike) were capable of doing good work.
And then there was Tenacious D. It may be hard to remember now but at one point the D was not only a funny act but also kind of a cool band, with an enjoyable show on HBO. On top of that there was the breakout role in High Fidelity, a role that captured Black’s perfect supporting man chemistry. At that point everybody looked at Jack Black and thought ‘That guy’s going places.’
I doubt anyone thought he was going to Gulliver’s Travels. Somehow along the way Black lost the thread of his own career and put himself on a path of shitty, broad movies that paid well but added nothing to his resume. At first I thought that Black was just socking away the money so that he could do something awesome, but it quickly became clear that no - middle of the road comedy was where Black wanted to be. And where he would be staying.
As I was writing this UGO ran a review with the headline ‘Congrats Jack Black: You Are Now Robin Williams.’ Except that’s simply not true. While Williams has and continues to make his share of shitty, broad, middle of the road entertainments, he has long since proven himself not only as a comic but as a dramatic actor. Robin Williams’ early work was great; in retrospect his style can be irritating but it still feels vital (as a stand up he was popular but also plagued with accusations that he stole material).
Williams’ film career is, realistically, more miss than hit, but looking at his early work you see a guy who trying interesting, if misguided things. I’ll stand up for Popeye to the day of my death, and The World According to Garp isn’t a great film but it’s a strong one. When Williams began fluctuating between Oscar bait and broad comedy he became insufferable, but even still he is capable of delivering real performances. Jack Black does not have that.
The other comparison for Jack Black is Eddie Murphy, whose career has become a tired joke. But that joke is predicated on the simple fact that Murphy was one of the best stand up comics who ever lived; his Delirious is one of the top stand up movies made. His early film work was transcendent, and his time on SNL was classic. Murphy established himself as a genius and then he pissed it all away.
Black’s never done that. He never got past the ‘This guy has potential’ stage. And now all the good will he might have once had is squandered; even his ‘better’ roles in films like Tropic Thunder are not enough. It’s cool that Black still does Channel 101 comedy stuff in LA (or at least that he was doing it) and his appearance on Community last season showed a larger self-awareness than I thought possible. But Margo at the Wedding proved that he doesn’t have the dramatic side that he should have picked up as part of Tim Robbins’ The Actors’ Gang.
What’s more, Black has never had a solo film that’s been great. School of Rock actually brushes right up against greatness, against all odds, but it only manages to be quite good. And while Williams certainly had many films that were no better than School of Rock (and much worse), it didn’t take him long to get into the awards bait world; it’s hard to imagine Jack Black getting nominated for an Oscar (for a performance anyway. Maybe original song at some point). The harsh reality is that Jack Black is not a leading man; he’s funny support but he somehow came to believe that stealing a movie like High Fidelity is the same thing as being the star of a movie like High Fidelity.
The reality is that no matter how insipid Robin Williams gets we know he can always surprise us with humor or pathos. He’s done it before, and it seems like a mistake to ever fully write him off. Eddie Murphy has hit rock bottom, but he fell from Olympian heights to get there. I couldn’t make it all the way through Meet Dave, but I’ll always have 48 Hours and Trading Places to fall back on. But there’s nothing like that for Jack Black. He’s a guy who never fully found his place before he sold himself out. Now as Gulliver’s Travels looks to be a career-wounding disaster, where can he go?