The Russell Crowe Gimmick: A History

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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

This needs to stop. In Body of Lies, Russell Crowe once again pulls out his oldest gimmick: The Contrarian Detail. Again and again, Crowe plays tough guys — and tries to humanize them with some too poetic, too cute detail, to ridiculous, distracting effect. His Black Bart cowboy had a taste for painting in 3:10 to Yuma (remember him sketching the sagebrush in between gunfights?). His fearless sea captain had a fine hand with the violin in Master and Commander (how’d he keep that thing in tune?). And now, like his sensitive divorced dad–tough cop in American Gangster, his absurdly evil, Rumsfeldian CIA mastermind in Body of Lies is a magnet for soccer-dad clichés, ferrying his kids back and forth to school while plotting assassinations on his cell phone.

After breaking through with coherent, focused performances in Romper Stomper, Love in Limbo, and L.A. Confidential, Crowe hit on his formula in Gladiator. “The big mistake is their monolithism,” said Crowe, badmouthing other heroes. “The approach to my character is different, more subtle … [He] has a wife and a son, vineyard and olive groves … It can’t be more different to the action heroes you’re talking about. They’re crude characters with a gun in their hands!” After romanticizing that Roman killing machine as a loving dad and husband, Crowe won an Oscar.

Since then, Crowe hasn’t just rounded out his characters, he’s slathered them with odd accents, uncharacteristic hobbies, and odd tics. He always needs more to play (and, yes, it’s fair to lay the blame on him, since he has more control than most actors in the business. As Sam Raimi once said, "The problem with working with Russell is that he always has a good idea"). Unfortunately, Crowe hasn’t made his characters more interesting by giving them surprising characteristics, he’s just made them ridiculous. (Weirdly, his best recent films have been with Ron Howard, who’s pathologically averse to complexity.) Below, a few examples:

The Rough Sailor As Soulful Violinist: In Master and Commander, his Captain Jack Aubrey is not only a fearsome sailor, he has a beautiful artistic soul. He discusses literature with his best friend (Paul Bettany) and plays violin in his spare time. “Those same callused, thickened hands then pick up this delicate, feminine instrument, the violin,” crowed Crowe. “He will play from his heart the things he can never say.”

The Evil Gunslinger As Soulful Sketch Artist: In 3:10 to Yuma, not only can bad man Ben Wade bed prostitutes and shoot the wings off a horsefly from a hundred yards, he can draw! The rough-rider artiste likes long walks and sketching the horizon, or naked female form, romantically framing one drawing on a scraggly piece of scrub brush for Christian Bale to discover.

Mean Streets Plus Kramer vs. Kramer: Since real-life hard-ass detective Ritchie Roberts apparently wasn’t interesting enough, Crowe gives him a complicated home life and a child-custody case to fight in American Gangster.

The Wall Street Asshole As Great Guy: In a way, the preposterous film A Good Year is entirely a collection of contrarian tics. We’re told that Max is a Wall Street asshole prick good-for-nothing, but everything he does proves that he’s a wonderful, tender, wounded soul who had a magical childhood. Everything is overkill; nothing makes any psychological sense.

Rumsfeld As Soccer Dad: None of Crowe’s yin-yang characters are more egregiously rounded than the insane soccer-mom Pentagon sonofabitch he plays in Body of Lies. Over and over again, Crowe is seen driving kids to school, or watching their soccer games, at the exact moments that Leonardo DiCaprio happens to call his cell phone with a new update on a high-profile Middle Eastern catastrophe. This allows Crowe to yell threats and issue life-or-death commands in a weird country-boy accent — while lovingly dropping off his daughter at school in the SUV. Isn’t that just crazy? Yeah, it is.

What’s Next? His next part isn’t just one dream role of contrarian more-is-more gimmickry. It’s two: Russell Crowe will play both Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham in his next film with the ever-indulgent Ridley Scott. Crowe’s revisionist Robin Hood sounds like it will reveal Hood as a hood and the Sheriff as a caring father and lute player.