Annals of the Underrated: Sam Rockwell

I have, on occasion, posted rants about filmmakers and actors who I consider overrated, a list that includes John Hughes, Terrence Malick, Zooey Deschanel and Ridley Scott, among others.

And, at some point, a reader sent in a comment that said, “Why not write about someone who’s underrated?”

To which I had no good answer. It was an absolutely reasonable request. It just took me a while to figure out who to write about.

And then I saw a film called “The Way, Way Back” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and found my subject: Sam Rockwell, one of the funniest, most original and compelling actors working in films today. And one of the most underrated, in terms of awards or the kind of big-budget roles that turn someone into a star.

I’ve been a fan of Rockwell’s since the first film I remember seeing him in: 1996’s “Box of Moon Light,” a wonderful and sadly overlooked film by the similarly underappreciated writer-director, Tom DiCillo. He played a free spirit known only as the Kid, into whose forest retreat a very uptight John Turturro stumbled, to be changed forever.

Rockwell had a run of really tasty little independent films in the mid-1990s, the kind of movies that were a staple at Sundance for a while: “Jerry and Tom,” “Lawn Dogs” (opposite a very young Mischa Barton), “Safe Men.” He inevitably played guys who tended to act impulsively and think later, loose cannons running a little wild in their own lives, their mouths more than likely to get them into trouble they could avoid but couldn’t help chasing.

When he showed up in bigger budget films – like “Galaxy Quest,” “The Green Mile” or even “Charlie’s Angels” – Rockwell played smaller but always tangy character roles, as convincing at playing a doofus as a vicious killer. He was, to quote a recurring line from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the guy who was the “wild card, bitches!”

Oh, Rockwell can play it straight. He was a concerned parent of a demonic child in “Joshua,” and played James Reston Jr. to Michael Sheen’s David Frost in “Frost/Nixon.” He was second banana to (but still stole the show from) Nicolas Cage in “Matchstick Men” and Robert De Niro’s musician son in “Everybody’s Fine.” And he was heartbreaking as a wrongly imprisoned ne’er-do-well in Tony Goldwyn’s “Conviction.”

Yet he can still carry a film, if someone will let him.

This commentary continues on my website.

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