Maybe Jack Black Should Stick to Singing

I loved Jack Black in High Fidelity. Loved him. Loved the whole movie, but really loved him, loved the way he talked about Evil Dead 2; the way he gently handed "Blonde on Blonde" to a benighted customer, telling him it would be alright; the way he sang "Let's Get it On." The honeymoon's been slowly bleeding to death ever since.

The Tenacious D album was disappointing. More than half the album was made up of comedic skits or half-formed songs that you could really only listen to about once. "Kielbasa Sausage," "Tribute," and "Wonderboy" are all pretty good -- though the last two were really, really overplayed, and I probably don't need to hear them ever again, as long as I live. But the good songs were actually good, and they worked both as parody and as straightforwardly enjoyable rawk, especially because Dave Grohl (the best drummer in the world! Nirvana!) was on the drums.

And Jack's been working on his actor credibility too. After cashing checks voicing talking animals in Ice Age and Shark Tale (a long way from Sonic Death Monkey, let me tell you), and appearing in critically slaughtered comedies like Saving Silverman, Orange County, and Envy, he may have decided it was about time to try a different genre. Since then, he's been in a fantasy epic, a relationship drama, a romantic comedy, and a Michel Gondry movie (which is sort of all three).

I completely agree with the decision to broaden his range -- he was a one-note comedic actor who was running out of ways to play the same character in the same crappy movie, and I approve of slumming entertainers trying something new for a change -- but it hasn't really helped. After watching Be Kind Rewind this weekend, I finally discovered the reason why: he's just not a good actor.

I'm probably one of the biggest fans of Peter Jackson's King Kong that there is, but in a terrific ensemble cast, Jack's the weak link. It's strange to see, amid the excellent ham jobs by Thomas Kretschmann and Andy Serkis, borderline racist cannibal natives, and a twenty-foot tall gorilla, Jack Black doing his best to be restrained. It doesn't really work.

Then there's his work in romantic comedies. The trouble with many popular Jewish comedians who move to romcoms -- I'm looking at you, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller; sit down, Rob Schneider -- is that they tend to play emotionally stunted man-children, with really no texture or variation. Jack Black is no exception. Having already wooed a fatsuited Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal, Black moved on to play one of the two romantic leads in The Holiday, playing opposite Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Cameron Diaz in what you might call casting against type.* Then he moved to the misanthropic Noah Baumbach's latest misanthropic teeth-gritter, Margot at the Wedding, and played more or less the exact same schlub.

Which brings us to Be Kind Rewind. As in High Fidelity, He plays another rude, ego-driven, knowledgeable and elitist clerk in a specialty shop selling vintage entertainment. (There it was vinyl, here it's rental VHS tapes.) And... again, he's just not quite right. Then again, neither is Mos Def, his opposite number. Miscast, overexposed, and uncertain of what tone to strike, Black is a microcosm for the movie itself. It's a movie that could be great, but just isn't quite. In that sense, it matches Jack Black, to neither one's credit.

On the other hand, he's a pretty damn great rock singer when he puts his mind to it. The best thing Jack Black has done since High Fidelity was one of my favorite songs of 2007. It's called "I Am the Warlock," and it was the hidden track on Dave Grohl's Probot album. That single song lived up to the entire promise of Tenacious D. At the end of a fun, enjoyable metal-fanboy homage, where Grohl hooked up with the lead singers from his favorite metal bands growing up and wrote songs for them... followed by three and a half minutes of silence... thundered the best damn song on the album. Jack hangs with the greats, hitting the perfect tone of reverance, gentle satire, and balls-out rock and roll.

"I whisper the ancient scriptures
I drink the blood of the lamb
And as I begin to levitate
This is the day of the damned!"

So... maybe Jack Black should just stick to singing. He's actually pretty good.

*I didn't actually see The Holiday; there's due diligence in research for a column, and then there's having to actually watch a movie by the woman who made What Women Want and Something's Gotta Give. You gotta have principles in this business.

Okay, I didn't see Margot at the Wedding either. Sue me.