“You Gotta Act” is a Vague Visages column on acting by Manuela Lazic.
It can be unsettling to think of Clueless as being already 23 years old — and not only because of its story about the self-discovery that accompanies one’s first love, and how that feeling continues to resonate throughout a lifetime (after all, the film was loosely based on Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma). Another reason why Amy Heckerling’s masterpiece still feels fresh to this day is the unchanging, youthful face of its male lead, Paul Rudd.
In his first feature film, the New Jersey-born actor was 26, a narratively-appropriate age to play Josh, the older ex-stepbrother to 16-year-old Cher (Alicia Silverstone). But with his virtually intact facial features, Rudd could probably reincarnate this character today if Clueless were to be remade. Interestingly, he actually reprised one of his past roles for the Netflix flashback show Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp in 2015, where the joke was that all the actors from the 2001 film Wet Hot American Summer returned to play their young characters but, naturally, looked 14 years older. All, but Rudd: he looked the same on the last day of camp in 2001 as he did on the first day of camp in 2015. I know, this is confusing.
What made Rudd perfect to play Josh, a young man slowly getting wiser, is what has made him such an enduring but also unique actor. At once full of boyish vitality and considerate enough to control this energy, Rudd’s persona is an unusual ideal: the meeting of the extremes that are silliness and wisdom, childishness and maturity, stupidity and conscientiousness. Perhaps his face doesn’t change with time because, as the cliche has it, he has remained a child on the inside. Perhaps, too, this odd combination explains a career that is diverse, confusing and always worth following.
Clueless offered Rudd an opportunity to show off his range as Josh delivered line after line of biting criticisms of the privileged and arrogant Cher, all the while discreetly caring for her and falling helplessly in love. Heckerling repeatedly shows Josh observing his step-sibling silently, and Rudd incarnates teenage dreaminess with precision and a subtle comic emphasis that serves this exuberant film well. In the exhilarating declaration scene, the camera zeroes in on Rudd to show in his behaviour what his indecisive, shy words can only suggest. Rudd’s exaggeration here seems only natural: for a nice boy like Josh, telling a girl he likes that she’s “gorgeous” is a big step, and stammering is unavoidable (yet charming).
Josh wasn’t your typical charming prince, spending half the film amusingly chastising Cher for being too much of a princess. This more playful, less rose-tinted side of Rudd didn’t quite register then, however, and for all its charm, Clueless perhaps wasn’t the best outlet for the actor to truly demonstrate his raw comedic talent. Instead, the film’s success and Rudd’s beautiful confession scene lead him to more sentimental parts, where his strange approach to romance was to be used again.
The Object of My Affection (1998) paired Rudd with Jennifer Aniston, another atypical romantic lead, to mixed results. The story of a pregnant woman choosing to raise her child with her gay best friend made for awkward and disturbing situations rather than any constructive or endearing commentary on sexual freedom and politics. There’s also something unsettling about Rudd’s general gentleness being framed as characteristically gay: such a perspective is reductive both for Rudd and for homosexuals. It seems as though Rudd’s type of straight masculinity — defined by generosity, lightheartedness and humility — was difficult for Hollywood to handle, perhaps as difficult to understand as gayness. Both homosexuality and a manliness not limited to physical prowess, sex appeal and demonstrations of superiority were, at least at the time, confusing identities for the American film industry. Luckily, or perhaps unavoidably, Rudd’s next big role allowed him to deconstruct this masculine ideal. That it was a comedic part doesn’t seem like a coincidence either.
In David Wain’s Wet Hot American Summer, Rudd plays Andy, a parody of the womanizing college boy that even a good girl like Katie (Marguerite Moreau) is bound to fall for when her sexual awakening makes Coop (Michael Showalter), the nice respectful kid, seem way too boring. In Wain’s vision, Andy’s manliness is so over-the-top as to be abject: it’s hard to see how Katie could appreciate him at all, but that’s the point. Katie only likes him because he’s hot, and his vulgarity and total disrespect for authority or common decency reveal the rotten core of heteronormative relationships as presented in cinema and encouraged by society. Rudd plays up the male bravado that he so far never got to embody with such viciousness that it convinces you he most definitely doesn’t possess it himself. Playing so far from his type, he gets to lean into his tendency for hyperbole and is funnier than ever. Like a true comedian, it is when he commits to absurdity and hyperbole that Rudd is the most truthful.
In Neil LaBute’s 2003 film The Shape of Things, the attack on masculinity is more subtle, complex and literal. When Rudd’s character Adam meets Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), he’s a chubby and boring nerd, all awkwardness and timidity. Through proximity with the intellectual manic pixie dream girl, he becomes “handsomer, and firmer, and more confident.” In a brutal twist, his girlfriend reveals that this transformation was the result of her careful, artistic manipulation — turning him into a literal object of affection. In doing so, this conceptual artist proves her point that society (just like Katie in Wet Hot American Summer) is obsessed with “the surface of things, the shape of them” — Evelyn found that Adam’s morals worsened as he became more traditionally attractive. Naturally, Rudd’s slightly mannered style was perfectly suited to the portrayal of a susceptible man anxious to act more appealingly. Although his comedic aptitudes didn’t find much use in this film, his essential kindness made Adam consistently endearing, thus proving Evelyn wrong: whatever typically awful 1990s shirt he was wearing, he never meant any harm, unlike she did with her cynicism.
For Rudd, 2004 was an important year for his continued interest in the comedy of gender roles: Adam McKay’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (which featured him as ladies man-weatherman Brian Fantana) began his collaboration with writer, director and producer Judd Apatow (who produced Anchorman). Unsurprisingly, this kind of broad ensemble American comedy proved to be a perfect fit for Rudd. His most idiosyncratic characteristics get to bounce off co-stars like Will Ferrell and Steve Carell in those scenarios, and each performer makes the others look weirder and thus better. In these stories of silly men and their complexes, Rudd’s friendly face and goofy smile mean that he tends to play the rather normal nice guy, but not a man of reason. His heightened acting style makes his characters’ bafflement and distress when things don’t go their way all the more ridiculous and gratifying to watch. The men he portrays for Apatow are ludicrous, disgruntled and privileged (white) American men. As David in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Rudd is pathetic in his self-justified inability to move on from a break-up, as well as in his conviction that he is totally the man to help his friend have sex for the first time. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) sees Rudd accentuate his desperate, easy-going attitude to the extreme to play a pothead surfer dude who doesn’t “really believe in age and numbers” and advises, “when life gives you lemons, just like, fuck the lemons and bail!” With Apatow, Rudd makes his regular guy appearance a ridiculous cover-up for male insecurity.
As Rudd became more famous thanks to the continued rise of the two-hander American comedy, he found plenty of opportunities to become more of a comic leading man throughout the 2000s. He reunited in 2008 with director David Wain (who he’d also acted for in The Ten in 2003) for the studio comedy Role Models, which the pair co-wrote with Ken Marino. Once again, Rudd’s character was an absurd man struggling with resentment after a difficult separation and trying to become a “bigger brother” to an alienated teenager: Rudd’s Danny starts out cynical and grows into a mature, paternal role. (He also played a normie in Wain’s Wanderlust , which reunited him with Aniston as city folk who join a rural commune.) This analysis of masculinity carried on with I Love You, Man (2009), where Rudd got to explore the intricacies of male friendship and how this type of intimacy compares to the traditional heterosexual romance. Rudd is always willing to embarrass himself for laughs, and his anxious conversations with Jason Segel are equal parts cringe-worthy and touching: his comedy in this film is one of uncontrolled sincerity and abnormal self-consciousness.
The 2010s have so far been the most exciting period for Rudd. His comedic output reached new heights while Hollywood’s evolution has helped him diversify his roles, to mixed but interesting results. He was another romantic lead in James L. Brooks’ How Do You Know, the most expensive and probably most disappointing romantic comedy of all time which nonetheless confirmed his interest in playing more serious parts. With its regular guy hero, the film also pointed at American cinema’s progressive understanding of Rudd’s softer masculinity. After a small role in the coming-of-age film The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), he co-starred with Emile Hirsch in David Gordon Green’s indie buddy movie Prince Avalanche (2014). As the washed-out but serious man Alvin, he used his nice guy attributes for more dramatic purposes than ever before, his comedy turning into sarcasm and his dissatisfaction with romance more sad than amusing. Hirsch’s Lance, younger and less thoughtful, was a more abrasive man constantly running after women, but their friendship ultimately helped them both to be kinder and more honest about their own pain. The mid-2010s seemed more open to heroes like Rudd: men with feelings, optimism and generosity.
Yet Rudd never let go of his affinity for comedy — on the contrary, he has done some of his best work in that register in the 2010s, which in turn led to new and bigger opportunities in more recent years. To this day, one of Rudd’s funniest turns remains his appearance as “Paul” in the Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! sketch “Man Milk,” which aired on the [adult swim] network in 2010 and became an online sensation a couple years later when it was uploaded to YouTube. Way too absurd to be faithfully put into words, the video shows Rudd sitting at a computer and watching several nonsensical iterations of himself on his screen, but anyway, just watch it and thank me later.
A more coherent but equally dazzling comic turn was in the TV show Parks and Recreation in 2012 as Bobby Newport, the clueless but popular man running for the city council against Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope. Leslie admits upon meeting him that “he is attractive, and charming, and his family employs half the town” but remains determined to defeat him, a dynamic that Wain recreated between the two actors for his 2014 romantic comedy parody They Came Together. Poehler’s Molly owns a small independent candy store (or storage space, since all the sweets are free) while Rudd’s Joel works for Candy Systems and Research, a big corporation that will destroy all competition in its wake. Molly directly describes him as “kind of the typical romantic comedy leading man, you know. He’s handsome, but in a non-threatening way. Vaguely, but not overtly Jewish,” and in classic rom-com fashion, the two fall in love. They are naturally met with the challenges of their preconceptions of each other, their different backgrounds (“why didn’t you tell me your parents were white supremacists?”) and their pasts (“I don’t know Tiffany, but she sounds like a stupid bitch”), but eventually make it through. Wain’s script emphasises the nuts and bolts that make this genre at once ridiculous and compelling, and the performances he gets out of Poehler and Rudd are appropriately sincere and heightened. Together, they turn the genre inside-out, but also the film, making it both hilariously clairvoyant and truly uplifting — like the best romantic comedies.
Although They Came Together wasn’t met with the success it deserves, it helped Rudd establish himself as a bonafide comedic star (his appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s show is one for the ages), and 2015 presented him with an opportunity like no other. Throughout the 20 years since Rudd’s beginnings, Hollywood slowly but surely changed its outlook on masculinity, as notions of gender and sexuality evolved in society itself. While a sweet boy like him was confusing for American cinema in 1998 and had to be repackaged as gay-but-not-totally in The Object of My Affection, today he represents a new masculine ideal. Rudd may not have the build of a Channing Tatum, but he, too, offers a kindness, ease and respectful outlook that Hollywood is progressively learning to embrace and celebrate. His modern realness doubled by good old-fashioned charm and an absurd sense of humour make him a real-life hero, which he now gets to be on the big screen as Marvel’s Ant-Man. Released in 2015, the film saw Rudd start off as a pathetic robber just out of prison — a classic Rudd role — who then finds courage when he adorns a shrinking suit and helps save the world. One of the lighter superhero movies of recent years, Peyton Reed’s film left some space for a minimal amount of humour and didn’t attempt to transform Rudd into a muscular killing machine. After all, the power to become very small isn’t sexy as much as it is funny, and the film finds its voice when it plays with the comedy of proportions.
A sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, is coming out next month, but Rudd hasn’t spent the last three years idly waiting. Besides returning to Wet Hot American Summer for its two Netflix follow-ups, the actor has also tried his hand at more serious roles. He was second-billed in Duncan Jones’ highly anticipated and deeply disappointing Netflix film Mute earlier this year, acting alongside Alexander Skarsgård, and this week sees the release of The Catcher Was a Spy, where Rudd leads as a baseball player doubling as a secret agent. Whatever the quality of the film, there is something deeply moving about seeing a close-up of Rudd’s still unwrinkled face on the moody poster for this serious period drama. Hollywood has progressed enough to employ an actor of his range and particular sensibility, without being perplexed by his kindness and lack of aggressivity. The hope now is that the industry will not give up too fast on this new premise, and will also better welcome Rudd’s wilder side. The sentiment that Hollywood doesn’t respect comedy persists (why is Steve Carell turning away from the comedies that made him a star?), but Rudd is living proof that laughter is the secret to eternal youth.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to The Ringer, Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.