In The Big Year (opening today), Jack Black plays a bird-watching fanatic who travels around the world hoping to find and log as many rare winged creatures as he can. That plot may come as a surprise if you've only been paying attention to the ad campaign, which eschews any mention of bird-watching for a purely star-driven campaign: "Come see Jack Black get in adventures around the world with Steve Martin and Owen Wilson!" it says. "Our movie might be about a niche hobby, but our actors have four-quadrant appeal!" But does Black still possess the ability he once had to sell a movie on sheer star power? To find out, we spoke to industry insiders to answer the question: If Jack Black were a stock, should you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: Pick all sorts of random movies from the nineties — from Demolition Man to Mars Attacks! to Dead Man Walking — and Black is likely to pop up in an unexpected small part. Those kinds of roles were his bread and butter for a long time, until he finally found the supporting part that let him pop: John Cusack's highly opinionated record-store colleague in High Fidelity. Suddenly, Black was up for leads in movies like Shallow Hal, and he made good on that promise with his perfectly calibrated star vehicle School of Rock in 2003. Since then, Black has tended to opt for big comedy and family-friendly animated films. The latter has been lucrative — he's got his own mega-franchise in Kung Fu Panda, and the second installment did gangbusters overseas — while his appeal is starting to wane with the former. Nacho Libre and Tropic Thunder were big hits, but Year One and Gulliver's Travels didn't impress critics or audiences.
Peers: Though he's a veteran compared to Russell Brand (36), Owen Wilson (42), Zach Galifianakis (42), and Ed Helms (36), he now runs about even with all of them.
Market Value: Since 2000, Black's biggest live-action hit has been King Kong, but that was sold on the monkey — Black's own cachet has declined since he pulled in $70-80 million in movies like Shallow Hal, School of Rock, and Nacho Libre. Year One and Gulliver's Travels barely topped $40 million, and the latter had a particularly weak holiday-season opening, coming in at $6.3 million for its first weekend.
What Hollywood Thinks: "I think he's seen hotter days," says one top agent. "I think he is talented, but I think he's somebody who needs to be fit into a concept — School of Rock, for example. He works best as part of a larger vision. The wild-eyed fat-man bit wears thin. He's good in an ensemble, but if there are any fewer than three people around him, I'm not interested. He's a star of sorts, but I don't think he puts asses in seats."
Where did things go wrong? "The problem is, Zach Galifianakis has totally eaten his lunch," says the agent. "Zach has the broad-based appeal: You can put him in combo with other people. I wish he would return to playing the 'funny fatty,' but in material with a voice. Otherwise he comes across as antic, and it's not pleasant."
"I feel like ... how can I word this?" said a high-powered publicist. "Not that he's a has-been, but that he needs to do something to reinvent himself — something that brings new attention to him, or that brings attention to him in a different way. I feel like he hasn't done anything new since Shallow Hal or School of Rock. He's kind of like Sandler, in that he's trying for broad comedy, only he's less and less successful. But you're limited with what you can do."
Another top agent agrees. "He keeps doing the same movie over and over again," the agent says. "Do something independent, or smaller. Year One, Gulliver's Travels, Big Year — it's all the same shit."
The Analysis: If there's any silver lining here, it's that Black may be receptive to that advice. His next movie is Richard Linklater's true-life tale Bernie, where he co-stars with Matthew McConaughey (another coasting movie star who's suddenly switching it up) as a Texas con man beloved by his small town but hiding a murderous secret; it's a small movie, but he's terrific and modulated in it. After that, he'll be seen in Charlie Kaufman's utterly wild Frank or Francis, a musical where he plays an Internet commenter locked in a grudge match with the film director he despises. Though Black and Steve Carell play the main roles and it's ostensibly a comedy, the brainy script from Oscar winner Kaufman is as far from Gulliver's Travels as you can possibly get.
And to hear our insiders tell it, that's exactly what Black needs to make people excited about him again. "Reboot!" yells one of the agents. "You can't keep on doing the same thing. Do something totally against type, where he's not playing the goofy fat guy. They've made a killing off him as that, and they've tried to exploit it. Big Year is going to be bad. It reminds me of Land of the Lost: just tired, lame. He needs to stop trying to make these four-quadrant movies. I think he's been searching for that School of Rock moment for the last five years."
"I'd still sign him, but I'd hook him up with auteurs," agrees the first agent. "Richard Linklater, Alexander Payne. As such, the Charlie Kaufman thing isn't a bad idea. There are very few people who become Will Ferrell or Jim Carrey, where people are just going to go no matter what. Jack Black had the opportunity, and it didn't happen, and I don't think it's going to happen. It's all about the writing and directing. You can have all the talent in the world, but if it's in the service of Gulliver's Travels, you're dead. But if he were matched with a great writer-director, things could turn around for him."
The agent recommends that Black take some advice from his Big Year co-star: "The one time I'd been able to stand Owen Wilson, he was in the Woody Allen movie [Midnight in Paris], normal, relaxed, and in service of material with a director who knows what he's doing." We know Black is capable of calming down — he was sweet and grounded in Margot at the Wedding, for instance — so why can't he do it a bit more?
The Bottom Line: Though he's a well-rounded actor capable of comedy and drama (plus, the boy's got a great set of pipes), Jack Black has been wearing out his brand in one aggressive high-concept comedy after another. Still, we're encouraged that he's begun picking movies that don't require a vein-popping hard sell on the red carpet. Keep it up.
Buy/Sell/Hold: Weak Sell.