Do you know how Drunk History started? Seven years ago, series creator Derek Waters was having a conversation about Otis Redding, and his drunken friend drunkenly tried to explain how Redding “knew he was going to die in a plane crash before he got on it.” Waters found this passionate tale to be very engaging and very funny, and the rest is drunk history. That friend — you obviously see where this is going, because no one reads the body of an article before the headline — was Jake Johnson! Lots of people are funny when they’re drunk, but Johnson is downright inspirational. Because Jake Johnson is the greatest drunk actor of our time.
To be clear, I’m not saying Johnson is the greatest at being drunk and acting (though he probably got close on Drinking Buddies). No, Johnson is greatest at playing drunk people. Drunkenness has been a major component of the characters he plays in Ceremony, Safety Not Guaranteed, Drinking Buddies, The Pretty One, and, of course, New Girl. So much so in New Girl that in the show’s third episode — the one that really establishes Nick (as opposed to the first two Jess-heavy episodes) — he finds himself drunk at a wedding. In this clip, Jess finds Nick drunk, holed up in a photo booth. Everything that we’d go on to to expect from Nick is in this scene. His grumpy charm is on display, and this is the first moment you can see a spark between the two. Of course it would happen when he’s drunk.
This is not to say that Johnson has been typecast or that he is playing these roles the same way. Quite the opposite. Johnson is extraordinary at playing men who can only be themselves when they drink. Who that self actually is varies wildly, especially in his film roles, where he brings remarkable nuance to each character’s drunken state. Let’s explore.
Johnson has a scene-stealing supporting role in this 2010 indie romantic comedy. In it, Uma Thurman’s character is getting married and Johnson plays Teddy, her mess of a younger brother who is essentially drunk the whole time. In an article he wrote for GQ, Johnson says there are “two types of drunks”: happy and mean. Johnson has exclusively played happy drunks, but always ones who have sadness creeping up on them. Here he is showing the film’s protagonist (who is secretly trying to win Thurman away from her betrothed) to his room. Teddy wants to be the fun, life-of-the-party type, but he’s just so heavy-hearted. Like actors in old movies did with cigarette puffs, Johnson uses each sip for pacing — to take the place of a sigh. As he releases from each of his just-too-long gulps, it feels like he’s trying to dump himself into the bottle. There’s a weight creeping towards the surface that finally comes out at scene’s end.
In the same GQ article, Johnson said, “Drunks tend to be equal parts insecure and overconfident, and it changes from one second to the next.” Watch his toast from the movie below and you can see all of that on his face. He so desperately wants each word he says to be perfect, but like it’s on a delay, once he hears it out loud, it sours.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Outside of the main time-travel plot of 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed, Jake Johnson has a mini-movie all to himself. Though his character is supposed to be overseeing the story that Aubrey Plaza’s character is supposed to be reporting, he is actually there to try to get back with his high-school girlfriend. He gets rejected and goes on a bender. Johnson in this scene reminds me of Vince Vaughn. They both have this Chicago, alcohol-soaked, quick-with-a-compliment charm, able to convince everyone around them to drink and have the best night of our lives. The difference is, with Johnson, it’s a way to deflect.
Almost any scene in 2013’s Drinking Buddies could be used here. It’s a tour de drunk. Johnson plays a guy who works at a brewery and, as you’d assume, drinks all the time. (This difference with Drinking Buddies is they had the actors drink real alcohol. So, if you’ve ever wanted to see Anna Kendrick super drunk, I highly recommend it.) Some context for the scene below: Johnson is in a loving relationship with Kendrick’s somewhat uptight character. He has a flirty friendship with Olivia Wilde’s wilder character. This scene takes place at a cabin where Wilde and her boyfriend have invited Johnson and Kendrick to stay for the weekend. After a night of drinking, Wilde and Johnson are the only ones awake. Again, from GQ, “When you’re drunk, your face has a language of its own, so it has its own conversations.” Here Johnson’s saying one thing that on the surface is very friendly (note the return of calling people “snakes”), but his eyes are saying something else.
The Pretty One
Here’s something slightly different. In this scene from The Pretty One, Johnson plays buzzed perfectly. The director purposefully frames the shot of Johnson with four empty beer bottles, and that’s exactly how Johnson plays it. There is a calm to Johnson as he does some cute role-playing with Zoe Kazan’s character. (They are both breaking into their neighbor’s pool. Previously, they joked that the idyllic neighbors are named Mr. and Mrs. Brown.)
Jake Johnson is the Tom Hanks of acting drunk. Hanks is exceptional at bringing the sense of an inner life to his everyman characters. Johnson is exceptional at playing characters whose inner lives only come out when they’re wasted. This is not to knock Johnson’s non-drunk acting. It’s just like if you were to write an essay about the Flash, you’d probably focus on his speed. Drunk acting is Jake Johnson’s superpower. He’s the greatest.