This weekend Chris Klein returns to a wide audience, reprising his role of Oz in American Reunion. Klein's career has been pretty much a steady decline since the first American Pie, with his last major leading role the horrifying remake of Rollerball; since then he's mostly been fourth or fifth billed in movies nobody heard of... or promptly forgot.
Over those years Klein has been refining his craft, and I think it's now time to recognize him as the worst actor of his generation (asterix: who appears in wide release movies. Occasionally). Klein's performance in American Reunion is not worse than his tour-de-force of terrible acting in Street Fighter, but I think that if Klein had more scenes he could have given his turn as Nash a run for its money. Klein is truly rotten as an actor... but in a completely compelling way.
He's come far. Klein's first role was in the brilliant Election; Alexander Payne snapped him up from senior year of high school to play Paul. Klein was perfect for the role: blandly handsome, vapidly sweet natured and brimming with an 'aw shucks' quality. Klein was utterly believable as the kind of guy who would vote for his opponent in a school election because he thought voting for himself was arrogant.
Basically this was Klein's ideal role, playing a Chris Klein sort of guy. There wasn't a ton of acting really required. This is a common practice, where filmmakers cast someone because they don't have to play the role, they simply ARE the role. It's like Oscar winner Harold Russell from The Best Years Of Our Lives, a WWII vet with hooks for hands playing a WWII vet with hooks for hands. Russell had the good sense to pack it in after that film, though, only reappearing in Hollywood decades later in small roles.
But Klein moved on to American Pie... and success. The role of Oz wasn't that different from Paul, really. He's a jock, but a good guy jock who sees the error of his ways and finds sweet, innocent love with Mena Suvari.
The basic likability that Klein has - he comes across as sort of a generic Good Guy - is what makes his badness so special. You're always rooting for him, no matter how uninspired his delivery or blank his stare. Klein often gives off a vibe of not fully comprehending what he's doing or saying. He has two modes: empty and bewildered. He shows emotion by opening his eyes really wide and slacking the whole of his face. In American Reunion he's taken on some significant William Shatnerisms, pausing his dialogue in places that make no sense and have no rhythm. But where Shatner was a ham and a half there's something narcotic about Klein's semi-whispered performances. He's like Keanu Reeves with a serious head trauma.
Acting is the art of being natural in unnatural situations. The reality is that even the actors who you think are terrible are magnitudes better than most non-actors, who inherently crash the manufactured reality around them. Chris Klein is one of those people crashing the manufactured reality; my favorite quote about Klein's acting comes from Alonso Duralde at MSN:
"I can’t remember the last time I watched an actor fail to walk into a room convincingly, but Klein does it."
This is the genius of Klein's badness, a complete inability to be convincing, but one that is backed up by an absolute earnestness. You can see the guy trying SO HARD in every scene. There are shots in American Reunion where he is delivering 'serious' lines and you can see, just under his array of hair plugs, veins in his head throbbing with effort. It's so endearing that Klein boasts his "Nash out" line in Street Fighter was an improv. Nobody should be proud of that, but it's sweet that he is.
Chris Klein is such a national treasure of badness that they've cloned him and given that clone a leading role on Glee. Do you think anybody is going to clone Christopher Mintz-Plasse? He'll just eventually fade into horrible actor obscurity. Chris Klein will be with us for years, spectacularly failing at every single role he plays. He's the bad actor we need.