Recently, morning gab shows, newspapers, and just about every media outlet on Earth giddily reported that Jennifer Aniston’s credit card had been packed with fraudulent charges by a beauty salon. And that media maelstrom pretty much sums up the Aniston conundrum: Do people care more about the minutiae of her life than they do about her movies? Defined far more by the tabloids than her body of work, Aniston’s value to — and longevity in — the movie business is an open question. And so, as her next comedy, The Switch, opens, we spoke to Hollywood insiders, did the research, and analyzed the results: If Jennifer Aniston were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?
STOCK HISTORY: Aniston’s talents were predestined to be secondary to her persona the moment her hairstyle emerged as the breakout phenomenon on Friends. But along with that hair, she was the one of the six cast members who was judged to have the most big-screen potential; her relationship and marriage to Brad Pitt became the official confirmation that she had star power, and the subsequent Angelina Jolie–brokered dissolution of that marriage confirmed to the media that they had been right to anoint her a person of interest, and they gave her a lifetime pass on their coverage calendar. She has enabled this fascination by always dating famous people (and then breaking up with them), so every movie she releases is met with a flurry of press, because her publicity rounds are a fine opportunity to ask about her private life. That she’s coy about it is no matter, as long as reporters get a chance to pose the question. But for all of the media scrutiny, her box-office record is middling. Her most successful films have been ones in which she plays the appendage to a loud, frantic comic actor or dog, as in Bruce Almighty, Along Came Polly, and Marley and Me.
CURRENT QUOTE: $8 to 10 million
PEERS: Reese Witherspoon and Anne Hathaway are slightly ahead of her on the “Get me ____ for this romantic comedy!” food chain, in part because they don’t come with the tabloid drama that threatens to overshadow the production. Aniston is considered on par with Jennifer Garner, Drew Barrymore, Michelle Monaghan, Amy Adams, and Rachel McAdams.
MARKET VALUE: The problem with bragging of Aniston’s track record is that most of her biggest hits have asterisks. Marley and Me grossed $143 million!* (*And was based on a beloved best-seller.) He’s Just Not That Into You brought in $94 million!* (*And was stuffed with so many stars that credit is diffused throughout Hollywood.) The Break-Up nabbed $119 million!* (*A number likely juiced by her relationship with co-star Vince Vaughn, making it more a byproduct of her tabloid fame.) Her movies that stand on their own with no mitigating factors (Rumor Has It, Love Happens) have performed flatly, with the exception of this year’s The Bounty Hunter, which overcame execrable reviews to make $67 million. Those eager to accept this as a sign that she’s heading into the realm of the review-proof star should note the foreboding signals for The Switch: NRG tracking data obtained by Vulture predicts a $10 million opening, and shows that it’s the first choice of only 5 percent of moviegoers in a weekend where its new competition is Nanny McPhee, Piranha 3D, and Lottery Ticket. And in its second week, the competing female-magnet film Eat Pray Love is still the first choice of 25 percent of moviegoers. Oh, and men don’t seem to want any part of The Switch: A distribution exec notes that it’s the first choice for only one percent of men under 25. And for men over 25? Two percent. Says the exec, “That tells me that guys don’t give a shit about it.”
Aniston has proven that she’s not willing to remain in the perky girlfriend box, experimenting wtih critically acclaimed indies like The Good Girl and Friends with Money. Even with the kind of mammoth Anistonian press attention that such small films rarely get, they only made a combined $28 million. Her attempts to stretch inside the studio system have been plagued by horrible choices: Her stab at a dark thriller was the muddled Derailed, and her serious romantic drama, Love Happens, was maudlin pap. Sure, The Bounty Hunter was terrible, too, but it survived because it was Jennifer Aniston in a comedy with an exasperating love interest and at least that felt familiar.
WHAT HOLLYWOOD THINKS: One agent grouses, "She’s been playing Rachel from Friends for the past fifteen years. She needs to do something different.” But a manager defends her with a back-handed compliment: “Actually, she’s made some interesting choices along the way — Management was an edgy little script; the movie didn’t work, but still. Derailed, same thing — that don’t allow you to put her down as simply making choices based solely on paychecks. But she’s not that believable in a [dramatic] role. Her sweet spot is this rom-com girl. She’s ‘Rachel.’ Okay, but then do ‘Rachel’ at the highest level: Alexander Payne. Jim Brooks. You have to try and put her in with really great directors.” However, while Aniston has a good reputation for being easy to work with, another agent says that few high-level directors may want to take her on because of her public profile: “These giant stars how do you take them out of ‘celebrity,’ take it away from them, almost, so that it won’t take [moviegoers] out of the movie when you see Jennifer Aniston in the film? Because if you hire a certain celebrity actor, it makes the actor bigger than the movie.”
This is difficult to change: Once you’ve fascinated the tabloids, it’s very difficult to convince them you’re not interesting. “The way you end up on those weeklies, is that at one point, you invited it in,” explains one top flack to the stars. “Look what happened to Sharon Stone. She woke up one day and said, ‘Take me seriously!’ But by then, she’d opened her legs one too many times on a magazine cover, and it was too late.”
THE ANALYSIS: Let’s for a moment work under the assumption that Aniston is a sure bet in romantic comedies. Looking at her efforts to break out of that mold, a problem arises: She can’t. She’s forever “Jennifer Aniston”; she hasn’t proven that she’s the kind of actress who can vanish into a period piece, or completely transform herself into a role. There was much press in The Good Girl about how all traces of Rachel vanished as she played a beaten-down checkout girl; you would have thought she had gained 150 pounds and was wearing a prosthetic hump. Instead, she looked like Rachel dressing up as a Wal-Mart employee for Halloween. She’s very difficult to dirty up. She’s shown a vaguely depressed side, but not a dark side.
And now, let’s go back to our original assumption, and correct it: Actually, she is not a sure bet in romantic comedies. While she is undoubtedly a star, she has not proven that she can reliably open a movie on her own. She has comedic chops, and can always rely on them as well as her go-to moves — the stomping of feet, the yelling at the male love interest while clenching shut her eyes — but the idea of her as box-office gold still remains more of a wish than reality.
She seems to realize her limitations. Though her production company, Echo Films, is developing some dramatic roles for her, she's wisely sticking largely to comedy, and attempting to work her way into more clever fare. (As well as another "love interest of the funny guy" film, Adam Sandler's Just Go With It.) She’s doing Wanderlust with Paul Rudd and director David Wain, and in the black comedy Horrible Bosses, she’ll actually play a villainous character. This could be a smart move: In comedies, we’ve seen ennui-plagued Jennifer Aniston and slightly less perky Jennifer Aniston, but if she can remove all traces of herself in a truly dark role, she could get audiences appreciating her more as an actress than as a magazine cover.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Aniston certainly brings name recognition and press to any project, but isn’t a reliable gross-getter on her own. Her attempts to broaden her comedic acting roles are promising, but she needs to act relatively quickly. Hard as it is to believe, the tabloids will not remain fascinated by her love life forever: Eventually a younger female star will develop a new strain of epic recurring romantic trouble that gossip scientists can only imagine of today. This could be a good thing, allowing Aniston’s acting to stand on its own. But that acting needs to be standing up already before the paparazzi bulbs dim, or she will have lost her window.