The Curious Career of James Marsden: A Roundtable Discussion

Actor James Marsden has had a long and relatively patchy career. While he’s never been branded an A-list movie star, the guy’s still here, showing up in various movies and television, typically delivering great performances that go unnoticed. Given the impending release of The Best of Me, the latest Nicholas Sparks adaptation with a poster of “white people almost kissing,” as the Internet has decreed, Consequence of Sound‘s film staff decided to take a nice, long look at Marsden, reflect on the ups and downs of his filmography, and how he managed to surprise us as a talented guy.

Blake Goble (BG): Show of hands. Who else didn’t realize they liked James Marsden until looking over his filmography? Wait, no. Let’s put it more honestly: Who else feels contrite for having written off Marsden as a pretty boy circa 2000? I thought we had Marsden pegged for some time. A “dick” in X-Men. A himbo in Sugar & Spice. A former Versace Model, therefore probably not a very good actor. Those labels were entirely unfair. Since his emergence in the late ’90s, Marsden’s had an interesting career trajectory and an under-recognized body of work as a utility comedian and a plain handsome straight man. WithThe Best of Me, Marsden’s looking older and more comfortable than ever, and dare I say, pretty charming. Or am I the only one who will admit they didn’t know how funny he could be until Enchanted?

Leah Pickett (LP): The man is aging like fine wine, Blake. And to answer your question, no. Prince Edward was my turning point. I would like to say that I had a hipster-ish inkling of “I knew James Marsden was funny before he was funny!” but alas. I knew of Marsden’s existence pre-Enchanted, obviously; he just never left much of an impression on me. He was either Cyclops from X-Men or very pretty wallpaper. He was gorgeous in The Notebook, I will admit, but the poor guy didn’t stand a chance against the Gos. And even though Disturbing Behavior is one of those awesomely trashy ’90s movies, like The Faculty or The Crush, that everyone must watch at least once in their lives, Marsden’s role, his first in a major studio release, is by no means a breakout.

But isn’t it always a joy to discover that an extremely good-looking actor can also be hilarious? I felt the same way when discovering this fact about Marsden and his 30 Rock fellows, Jon Hamm and Matt Damon (oh, don’t think for a second that I was going to weigh in on Marsden without mentioning Criss Chros), and now, post-Liz Lemon’s happily-ever-after, I think that Marsden should let his freak flag fly.

BG: Oh my god, he nailed the episode where he and Liz go to IKEA, a deathtrap for couples. Fey screams at him that he’s yet to fill out his census, and he counters that it’s baffling to pick a race if we all come from Africa. So sweet, so dumb. Yeah, he’s not untapped, but under-utilized.

LP: Totally. Of course, teaming up with the right project and the right director is key. In many ways, Marsden reminds me of onetime pretty boy Bradley Cooper, who found a nice mix of wacko humor and Oscar-level angst in David O. Russells Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, and regulation hottie Patrick Wilson, who quickly graduated from bland to badass with lots of strange and challenging arthouse fare (Hard CandyLittle ChildrenRunning with ScissorsYoung Adult). Ergo, with the right dark comedy or offbeat indie film, especially if helmed by an established auteur like O. Russell, Tarantino, or PT Anderson, I think that Marsden could be phenomenal.

Dominick Mayer (DM): While I think he’s yet to have that breakout role that makes him truly a household name (Enchanted should’ve been it, but that continues to get weirdly slept on as one of Disney’s best new millennium offerings to date), it’s not like he hasn’t been killing it for a while now. Roughly 50% of my interest in discussing this with you guys was to bring up Sex Drive, a horribly marketed comedy from Sean Anders that’s actually quite underrated and delivers great turns from both Clark Duke and Marsden, the latter as the dickhead older brother of the film’s sexually frustrated protagonist.

He dives headlong into the role of the insufferably smug alpha male and yet undercuts it with a perfect level of self-awareness about what a complete and utter tool he is. When he turns to his brother in the passenger seat and yells, “Everybody has sexual thoughts about other dudes, but you gotta bury that shit way down! This is America!”, he’s the perfect modern update to the jock villain from every film in which John Cusack appeared in the ’80s.

And, Leah, you make an interesting point. Is it harder for a talented actor who’s been around for a while to break out without playing against type? I’d like to think that getting some magical stamp of auteur’s approval isn’t the only inroads to being taken more seriously by a wider audience.

LP: I’d like to think so, too. Marsden hasn’t had to rely on a big-name director or Oscar bait-y transformation before, and I don’t think that he needs to, necessarily. However, I can’t think of many long-working actors who haven’t benefited from an auteur’s leg up. Take Mark Wahlberg, for example. Like Marsden, Wahlberg transitioned from hot model to actor in the late ’90s but was largely dismissed as a respectable talent until his breakthrough in Boogie Nights and follow-ups like The Departed and The Fighter, when the right roles (and the right directors) came along. Another example would be Adam Sandler’s legitimizing turn in the drama Punch Drunk Love: certainly one of his career high points, and mirroring Wahlberg’s partnership with PT Anderson in terms of establishing A-list actor cred, which leads me to wonder if Marsden could benefit from a similar boost. Hey, I’m sure it’s nice to collect a paycheck from Team Nicholas Sparks and make a film that millions of young women will undoubtedly pay a ticket to see. Still, I maintain that Marsden is capable of much more and could do much better.

james-marsden-1000BG: I don’t disagree. Like, he shows up and does his job well, but the material he gets is weak. He nabbed good laughs as pretty boy Jack Lime in Anchorman 2, Ron Burgundy’s better coiffed rival, but what were his lines again? He busted Ferrell’s chops, right? Same thing with him in Bachelorette. Dom, he’s that total 1980s jock-dick, but somehow likeably drawn.

Remember when he played John F. Kennedy in Lee Daniel’s The Butler? It was a total bright-eyed Massachusetts clambake performance, but Marsden probably benefitted from everyone focusing on laughing at John Cusack playing Nixon.

Also, he was a stern, cagey Navy SEAL officer in 2 Guns. The less said about that the better. There’s the family payday of Hop, where he hangs out with the Easter Bunny’s son. Oh, and don’t forget the misguided remake of Peckinpah’s seminal home invasion chiller Straw Dogs, with Marsden as the scorned husband. The rest of his resume is baffling. GrizzlyWalk of ShameAs Cool As I Am, and some other movies with limited distribution or low Metacritic scores. He’s never bad, just cast in not-very-good films. He needs a great film.

So I propose now that he get in bed with a hungry young director — say, Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) or Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) or Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars). He could totally play a struggling single father or a charismatic womanizer or even a fading athlete of some kind. He could probably do anything about a 40-year-old guy, just get him in a really great script. He’s in need of a challenge and is probably up to it. You guys got any career advice for him?

DM: Just to take projects that are a bit more demanding. I totally agree that he’s been consistently good-to-great in movies that scarcely require it (seriously, were any of those presidents in The Butler even trying to come off like their real-life counterparts?), and that’s admirable. A great many character actors have made their names on those roles. But I think of how hysterically funny Marsden is in something like Death at a Funeral, or some other such film that doesn’t really require that chutzpah, and it’s just kind of a bummer after a while that he hasn’t had the breakout role that he’s been entitled to all these years. But then, there’s something to be said for a guaranteed paycheck, and people will always, always turn out for a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, so what do I really know?

Personally, I’d love to see him just play an out-and-out bastard in something, with little to none of his usual heelish charm to offset it. It’d be an interesting mode that I think could come off really well. Leah, any thoughts?

LP: I’d like to see Marsden play a character that we haven’t seen him play before, but that wouldn’t necessarily be against type. You bring up a good example, Dominick: an all-out cad with a steelier edge, or a flamboyant yet still merciless villain (think Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained, but better, of course) that would put a delicious twist on that natural charm of his. He verged on dickish in 27 Dresses, but being the romantic lead, he couldn’t go all the way. I got a taste of his more acerbic side, though, and I have to say, I was into it. Slick sarcasm suits him.

And thank you for reminding me of Death at a Funeral, which brings me to my next little nugget of advice. Marsden has a gift for physical comedy, as evidenced by 30 RockEnchanted, and Death at a Funeral‘s naked butt hanging out the window scene; so if he does decide to go that route, I hope that he gives his inner Lucy Ricardo a chance to shine.


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