Cameron Diaz’s trademark smile turns into a sneer this week as she torments students and teachers alike in the new comedy Bad Teacher. As you might have noticed, the actress is in the middle of her big comeback push. The idea first started bubbling a few years ago when the out-of-the-spotlight Diaz dusted off her half-forgotten stardom and started picking up a ton of gigs, including a legal drama called Bobbie Sue, which subsequently disappeared, a romcom called Swingles that fizzled early, and one little project that made it to the big screen – James Mangold’s Witchita, which became the 2010 summer flop known as Knight and Day.
After appearing in maybe one swiftly forgotten film per year over the past decade (outside of her voice work on the Shrek films, of course), Diaz is everywhere. She’s dodging bullets with Tom Cruise, hanging out with The Green Hornet, earning spoiled apples, and she still has another four projects in various stages of completion (Gambit, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, An Ex to Grind, Old Acquaintance).
She’s certainly commanding more of our attention with her 2010 push, but considering her cinematic choices, “comeback” doesn’t seem like an apt word.
Granted, Diaz isn’t your typical mainstream, romance-leaning actress. She didn’t start her career as most do, lining up television gigs and crap movies until someone finally noticed her talent and put her in the just right role that pushed her into stardom. Save for some leaked, soft-core bondage modeling, her first role was her breakout – Tina Carlyle in The Mask. Diaz was the titillation, unfurling Jim Carrey’s masked tongue while offering up a little of the trademark sweetness she quickly became known for.
Within months, she hit TIFF with The Last Supper, a satire about intellectual liberals who become serial killers hoping to make the world a better place. But with The Mask notoriety in place, her romantic big-screen persona was set, ushering her to ensemble romance, convicts and crooks love triangles, May-December partnerships mixed with death, co-starring Julia Roberts romance, love with her Ewan McGregor kidnapper, and then her big, organic “mousse” blockbuster hit, There’s Something About Mary.
Whether mainstream or indie, Diaz has always flocked to the romance and interpersonal affairs, but she managed to change it up as well, applying her quirky warmth to the frazzle-haired Lotte Schwartz in Being John Malkovich, and the spurned lover in the Tom Cruise-starring Vanilla Sky. By this point, Diaz was a pretty solid force to be reckoned with because while type-cast, she also jumped in and out of the mainstream, offering at least one memorable film each year, if not two or three. Very Bad Things would balance There’s Something About Mary, Any Given Sunday was the antidote to Charlie’s Angels, and when The Sweetest Thing wasn’t so sweet, she impressed audiences in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. There was always a counterpoint that kept her spotlight balanced.
One might think an impressive turn in a notable film would be the key to longevity for Diaz, but the road was immediately bumpy and scarce outside of her voice work as an ogre wife. A second batch of Charlie’s Angels didn’t charm like the first. In Her Shoes was quickly forgotten. The Holiday was nothing more than the film that dared to cast Jack Black as a romantic lead. What Happens in Vegas should have stayed in Vegas. My Sister’s Keeper didn’t offer the dramatic impact Diaz likely hoped for, and The Box, well, the less said about Richard Kelly’s plagued third film, the better.
As Diaz worked with Kutcher in Vegas, however, she also started looking towards a busier future. Features like Swingles and Wichita started piling on her plate, and the increased productivity sparked comeback talk. But while she began to increase her output, and find some more high-buzz work, her choices quickly looked more like an actress playing chicken, her career standing in the road facing oncoming traffic.
One might understand shacking up on-screen with Kutcher, hoping for mainstream bucks, but then there’s no rhyme or reason to The Box – pushing forward professionally and thinking you can do that with a plagued director quickly solidifying an image as a one-hit wonder. She follows that gig with Tom Cruise, of all people – the man still trying to reinvigorate his career after many image fiascos. It didn’t help that she had a lot more chemistry with the man when she was stalking him in Vanilla Sky, than kissing him in Knight and Day. Naturally, the next step was a superhero film, but again – she picked the one plagued with fan uneasiness from the get-go, The Green Hornet. By this point, why not be a Bad Teacher as envisioned by the men who dared to write Year One? Three years, four back-to-back live-action films, and each one was shrouded with easy-to-spot risk.
Is it admirable risk or questionable choices? In her Bad Teacher review, Karina Longworth wondered if a professional performer with “a proven ability to make smart choices” is “at all conscious of what they’ve gotten into, did they try to make it better, or did they submit to mediocrity because, you know, f**k it – the check cleared? Are they so far inside that they can’t possibly gauge what the fix they’re in might look like from the outside?”
Though she might be willing to pull out Jon Stewart’s stitches to promote a film, it seems unlikely that she wants to try and succeed in spite of her choices, and rather is “so far inside” that she didn’t notice the potential for failure. Perhaps she didn’t prepare to have a distinct and specific comeback, but regardless, her presence in Hollywood has distinctly increased over the last few years and certainly shows a change in focus. And while these weird choices might not seem so out of place for a straight-forward, bubbly star full of smiles, butt-wiggling, and romcoms, she’s an actress who also peppers her resume with intriguing, off-the-beaten-path pieces like Supper, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Malkovich, and Vanilla Sky.
It might not seem like this is the same Cameron Diaz if not for Gambit, the upcoming Coen Brothers' remake that has nothing to do with superheroes. It doesn’t have the initial promise and heft of Malkovich or Gangs, since it’s a romantic heist movie originally starring Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. It’s not being directed by the Coens, but rather One Fine Day, Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Last Station helmer Michael Hoffman. But with a cast including Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci, and backed with Coen talent, the comeback potential is a lot higher than her work over the last few years.
Diaz is the actress it’s hard not to like (except maybe when she plays wet t-shirt contest on the roof of a car in Bad Teacher), because she matches charm with talent. When she’s not completely swimming in her go-to romance, her work shows depth. When Stephanie Zacharek panned Gangs of New York and faced the critical love of the film, she still noted that Diaz was one of the only actors who wasn’t “dwarfed by the wilderness of scenery.” But it’s as if she holds her talent close to the vest, releasing it in spurts just when we think we’ll drown in the same-ol’ Diaz.
What she needs – and we need – is not an increased number of projects that are plagued from the get-go. We need the four-time Golden Globe nominee who scored nominations four out of five years between 1998 and 2002 – the talent who would lull us into romantic complacency and laughs before stabbing us with truly interesting projects.
Let’s hope PJ Puznowski is the Gambit.
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