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the star market

The Star Market: Can Failed Prince Jake Gyllenhaal Ever Wear the Box-Office Crown?

Thanks to the ubiquity of promotional materials for this weekend’s romantic comedy Love and Other Drugs, we've been seeing a lot of a half-naked Jake Gyllenhaal. Sitting there chiseled, blue-eyed, and shirtless, an equally unclothed Anne Hathaway clutching his arm, he sure looks like a movie star. And he’s been carrying himself like one to boot (at ease, likable, charming the pants off David Letterman, and allegedly Taylor Swift). But is he the real deal? Though he’s amassed an impressive and varied body of work for a 29-year-old, he’s still without a hit to call his very own. His bald attempt to leap from serious Oscar bait to a big popcorn franchise, Prince of Persia, was an audible flop. Now he's going for the wide-appeal romantic comedy. Is Gyllenhaal a bankable movie star just waiting for the right project? Or a character actor trapped in a leading man’s shirtless body? On the eve of Other Drugs' release, we asked industry insiders these questions, plus the old standby: If Jake Gyllenhaal were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: After nabbing attention for his role in the cult classic Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal stuck to supporting roles in indies like Lovely & Amazing, Moonlight Mile, and The Good Girl. Then, in 2004, he signed on for the issue-movie-by-logline-only The Day After Tomorrow, a bombastic blockbuster that took in $544 million worldwide. But this seemed to be just a feint, as after this, he signed on for Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, a move that seems less risky in hindsight than it did at the time. (A gay cowboy drama may be the complete inverse of a Roland Emmerich global-warming action movie.) From then on, Gyllenhaal seemed to be picking his next projects by thumbing through old Oscar yearbooks: Jarhead with Sam Mendes, Rendition with Gavin Hood, Brothers with Jim Sheridan, and Zodiac with David Fincher. To so carefully return to these prestige picks (even if they didn't all work) after a blockbuster seemed like the move of a man confident he had ticked CGI and stunts off his life-experience list and was done with it.

And yet, after building his résumé and his profile (his relationship with Reese Witherspoon regularly landed him on the covers of tabloids), he beefed up to play the ab-tastic hero in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. A Jerry Bruckheimer production based on a video game, the movie cost around $200 million and grossed $90 million domestically (it took in $244 overseas, so was not an abject failure). If he had decided that he was ready to lock onto a sturdy franchise and ride it for all it was worth, it was a very short ride.

Peers: One agent snarks, “His agents would probably say that his peers are Leonardo DiCaprio (36), Mark Wahlberg (39), and Matt Damon (40) — but he’s not getting those roles: Leo’s getting those roles. Mark is getting those roles. I’m sure Disney started out with 'Get me Leo!' but wound up with Jake.” To be fair, Gyllenhaal will only turn 30 this December, making him some pivotal years younger than the aforementioned heavy hitters. When it comes to his actual age group, he’s head of a class that includes the likes of Channing Tatum, Chris Pine, Sam Worthington, and Ryan Gosling.

Market Value: Gyllenhaal has the physique and charm of a leading man and the résumé of a serious actor. And were he happy to stay in that niche, he would be an unqualified success. However, the fact that he has shown interest in a big-budget, action-hero career to balance out his serious films means we need to look at his potential in that arena, where he's not just a big actor who doesn’t have a franchise, he's a big actor who has a failed franchise. The fact that the audience didn’t show up for Prince leaves Gyllenhaal as one of the highest-profile box-office unknowns working today: a very famous actor who can and does anchor mainstream prestige pictures more frequently than just about anybody, but who can’t guarantee any return except critical acclaim.

Should Love and Other Drugs hit, it will prove Gyllenhaal can appeal to mass audiences in the right project. But the female-friendly Love won’t make him an action hero, which is, unfairly or otherwise, still the brass ring of bankability. (There's also the gross-friendly guy-humor niche, but other than with Bubble Boy, Gyllenhaal has never shown much of an interest in comedy until Love and Other Drugs.) For the action-hero route, Gyllenhaal’s hopes rest with Source Code, his action movie about a soldier zapped into another man’s body to solve a train bombing. But with its Inception-esque plot and director (Duncan Jones, following up Moon), Source Code seems to be more of a thinking man’s thriller than a straight popcorn movie. Up next is the long-delayed, much-troubled David O. Russell feature Nailed, about a woman who starts acting crazy when she gets a nail stuck in her head, and some projects in development: a Joe Namath biopic and a remake of the musical Damn Yankees among them.

What Hollywood Thinks: Hollywood thinks Gyllenhaal has acting chops, but they’re not sure he’s meant for blockbusters. Says an agent, “He’s a good actor. He transformed his body lifting weights, but I don’t think guys buy him as an ‘action hero.’ I mean, he’s extremely well-represented: [CAA] moved heaven and earth to get him into Prince of Persia, but it still didn’t work. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: When you were younger, you saw Han Solo, and you wanted to be him. Little boys don’t look up at Jake Gyllenhaal and say, ‘I want to be him.’ Sam Worthington, maybe.” A manager echoes this concern, “He looked out of place in Persia; I don’t look at him as an ‘Indiana Jones.’ There’s only so much you can control: A lot of it is luck, but you have to take jobs for the right reasons. [Persia] clearly was a grasp at trying to find 'that franchise.' Okay: A big studio is spending a bunch of money, and it could be a massive thing. But to say, ‘We need this.’ — that was a desperate act of relevancy, competition, and commerce. Because he is some version of a movie star, but to build him to the next level, he needs to find the right franchise.”

And what is that right franchise? “I’d put him in smaller films and let him be a star there,” says the agent. “He’s poised to have Phil Hoffman or Sam Rockwell’s career: good indie work over a long, long time. Or Sean Penn’s career. Sean is somebody who’s never quite done the big, commercial movie. He gets offered the big action movies all the time, but he always turns them down.” The manager uses the B-word: “He hasn’t found a franchise like that Bourne series. He’s bounced around, worked with interesting filmmakers, taken risks as a young actor that a lot of people wouldn’t. He seems to have gotten a little lost.”

The Analysis: Does Gyllenhaal really even need a Bourne (or an Iron Man, or a Batman)? There are plenty of movies — many of the best ones — that could use a big name to confer respectability and secure publicity for a film, but that no one expects to be a smash. In fact, this is the very description of almost all of Gyllenhaal’s movies up until Prince of Persia. What changed with that film is that Jake Gyllenhaal movies are now being marketed as Jake Gyllenhaal movies, a fact you can see in the publicity for both Love and Other Drugs and Source Code. Where Zodiac and Jarhead and Rendition were reflections on their directors and pedigrees, Gyllenhaal’s films are now reflections on Gyllenhaal. He’s achieved a stature of incipient bankability that ensures that for the next few years, all of his films will be a referendum on his box-office power, in a way that Sam Rockwell's aren't. However, he's being careful to keep the balance of his projects tipped toward prestige, which means he'll hold onto the more discerning audience and filmmakers that have supported him up until now. An actor could do worse than working with reputable directors on awards-season fare for much of his career, even if he’s not getting paid like Leonardo DiCaprio.

Bottom Line: We don't see him as the next Bruce Willis, and hope that Prince of Persia cured his blockbuster urge. But if Gyllenhaal is insistent on dabbling in big-budget entertainment, he could grow into a Clooney-esque figure with dashing heroic roles; until then, his taste on the other end of the mass-entertainment spectrum has held him in good stead, and will continue to do so.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Buy.

Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images