Over the course of Arrival, Amy Adams’s character, Earth's best linguist Dr. Louise Banks, learns a whole bunch of lessons about the universe. But at the beginning of the movie, she’s just a linguistics professor trying to give a lecture to a bunch of coeds who are all very distracted. Why? Aliens! As a student explains what's going on, Arrival delivers a classic sci-fi shot: Banks stares at a glimmering TV screen and realizes the world’s a lot bigger than she thought. But Amy Adams modulates the moment slightly, furrowing her brow and registering a frustration of her character: Underneath the awe at the presence of extraterrestrial life, she’s also a little mad she’s not going to finish her lecture.
There are many things to love about Arrival: beautiful cinematography, a solid twist, Jeremy Renner saying the words “Do you want to go make a baby?” and giant aliens who believe in love. But the film’s greatest strength is Adams, who gives a layered and precise performance in the midst of material that could easily dissolve into mumbo jumbo. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise – Amy Adams has five Oscar nominations! She’s on red carpets and magazine covers constantly! – and yet, it can seem like one. That’s largely thanks to fact that Adams is eternally cast an as an approachable girl next door, thanks to her sunny onscreen disposition and youthful expression. It’s a characterization that’s fitting, but which belies the fact she uses those very surface qualities to reach remarkable depths.
In her breakout turn in 2005’s Junebug, Adams played a pregnant North Carolina busybody, who starts out as a caricature but slowly pulls the film’s center of gravity into her grasp. The character embodies the two essential parts of Adams’s onscreen persona. On the surface, she’s bubbly and adorable, which can make her characters flighty — see Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Muppets, or Leap Year. But, given her firm brow, and the stern angles around her face, Adams can also turn flinty and serious, producing characters who are off-putting and distant — see Julie & Julia or Sunshine Cleaning. With the right script and direction, as in Junebug, those two sides of her persona combine: Adams is by turns expressive and overwhelming, dogged and sad. Her cheerfulness can harden into a core of cold steel.
For a good use of that cheerfulness, see Disney’s Enchanted, which cemented Adams as star. In Enchanted, the actress had to play a cartoon princess, the embodiment of goodness itself. Naiveté is hard to pull off, but Adams's advantage lies in the fact that she doesn’t wink at the audience, even amid a giant production number. Instead, with her big, bright eyes and musical-theater grin, she makes her exuberance the very totality of her character. She’s so basic it’s jarring, like a pumpkin-spice latte laced with speed.
As for the steel underneath: Look no further than Paul Thomas-Anderson’s The Master, where Adams plays the wife of a cult leader and a true devotee to the cause. Here, Adams’s typical sweetness turns to curdled treacle. She intimidates Joaquin Phoenix and gives a hand job to Philip Seymour Hoffman, all while wearing some immaculate frocks. The Master doesn't subvert what’s essential about Adams as much as it reveals how her signature expressions — wide eyes, a resolved forehead, bubbling nervous energy — can impart menace just as well as joy.
Adams has many advantages as a performer, but her streak of films before Arrival didn’t always know how to capitalize on them. In American Hustle, she played wildly against type, but made the mistake of going big and nasty alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who will do anything bigger, better, and nastier than her scene partner. In Zack Snyder’s Superman films, she retreated to what might have seemed a trademark role, Lois Lane, but the movies all but forgot about her. (If only someone realized Amy Adams would make a great comic-book villain.) Big Eyes was a calculated awards play that didn’t even amount to an Oscar nomination.
The less said about Big Eyes, the better, except to point out that the Tim Burton film helped give Adams a second star image: the perpetual nominee willing to go to great lengths to earn that long-dreamed-of Oscar. Despite her five nominations, Adams doesn’t conjure the same sympathy in awards season that swirled around, say, Leonardo DiCaprio, who had fewer acting nominations than Adams going into his big win for The Revenant. Leo resorted to eating bison liver to get his Oscar, a kind of stunt that's probably out of reach for Adams, who works in a more deceptively simple vein. Despite her turns in Arrival and Tom Ford’s noir thriller Nocturnal Animals, which opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, this year probably won’t be hers either.
That's a pity, because Adams’s real strength isn’t simply that she's approachable, but that she can use that the perception of approachability to do deep and specific work. Not to spoil the twist, but thanks to the film's flashbacks Adams has to play two versions of her character at the same time – one of which only makes sense at the end of the film. It’s a conceptual magic trick that works, for the most part, because Amy Adams knows how to ground a movie, how to use her preternatural normalcy in the service of character. She makes Jeremy Renner seem bumbling and sweet; she delivers a disarming deadpan; heck, at one point, she even speaks Mandarin. Through it all, she manages her greatest feat: staying human.