The Believer
Credit: Everett Collection

The moment that Ryan Gosling shows up in Crazy, Stupid, Love, playing a ladykiller so practiced and confident that he presents himself as a pickup artist as a way of disarming any woman who thinks that she’s immune to pickup artists, we know just who he is — and also that we want to keep watching him do what he does, because he’s so damn good at it. Actually, what he does is a great many things at once. It’s being totally charming, caustically funny, and sexy as hell: Gosling, tall and sleepy-eyed, in three-piece suits and frosted hair, shows you how impeccably he has all of that down the moment he glances at some leggy designer princess and begins to make his move. In Crazy, Stupid, Love, he’s all nonchalant insinuation, all laidback erotic signals, all vibe.

But he’s also a quick, incisive talker who, playing a master of “the Game,” reveals just enough of himself that we want to see more of him. As the movie illustrates (it’s what he teaches Steve Carell, playing a jilted suburban schlub who needs to get in touch with his inner alpha male), a successful pickup artist today needs to be aggressively sincere about what a liar he is. Gosling makes the audience eager to see the person beneath the lie beneath the I may be a jerk but you know you want me! come-on. And that’s because Gosling knows exactly who this person is. He’s the rare actor who can play a pickup-bar stud and also turn his performance into a pinpoint study of just that sort of dude. In every movie he makes, Ryan Gosling treats acting deadly seriously, as a game that is also an art. And that’s why he’s great at it.

Not bad for someone who could easily coast on the twinkle in his eye. You know the old saw about how you’re either a Beatles person or a Stones person? It’s true, of course. You can worship both at once (many of us do), but in your heart or hearts, at the end of the day, your ultimate temperamental allegiance tilts one way or the other. (Me, I’m a Beatles person.) In an analogous sense, I would say that almost every major Hollywood star today is either an actor first and a movie star second or a movie star first and an actor second. Just give it a try. Brad Pitt? He can, on occasion (as in The Tree of Life), be an astonishing actor, but his DNA is all movie star. Sean Penn? A great actor way before he’s a star. Leonardo DiCaprio? Ever since Titanic, it’s inescapable that his movie-star status trumps his acting mojo (though that, at its best, is considerable). James Franco? Actor first, star second.

Credit: Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Gosling may turn out to be the rare actor, like Jack Nicholson, who is equally both at once. Early on, though, I thought he was almost destined to be an actor first and a star second. He first came to prominence ten years ago, in The Believer (left), playing an anti-Semitic skinhead who was, in fact, a brilliant, searching, self-loathing Jewish screw-up, and Gosling gave a performance — I don’t say this lightly — that was worthy of the young De Niro. He did something that movies about sociopaths, let alone movies about young Talmudic scholars-turned-Judaism bashers, almost never do: He made the character’s belief system intellectually charged and compelling. He showed you that this violent, messed-up kid who despised his heritage was, in the depths of his rage, the only halfway reverent Jewish person in the room. (He hated the contradictions of the religion — the hypocrisy of it, in his view — because his desire to believe was so consuming.) In that single performance, a stunning screen actor was born.

Three years later, in The Notebook, a gooey and effective adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel, Gosling, playing opposite Rachel McAdams, proved that he not only had the right stuff, he had the hunk stuff, too — he could do puppy-eyed longing and hot embraces in the rain, and girls in the audience swooned. But as important as that hit weeper was to his screen image, the movie that, to me, confirmed Gosling’s extraordinary fusion of acting chops and classic Hollywood magnetism was Fracture, the cat-and-mouse thriller he made with Anthony Hopkins in 2007. It was exactly the kind of “Okay, it’s time to do a suspense movie” project that tends to result in an obligatory box-office hit and a boilerplate performance. But Gosling took the role of a junior prosecutor, obsessed with nailing the perpetrator of a “perfect” crime, and made the character so neurotically intense that watching him lock horns with Hopkins was thrilling. ’70s-style volatile-explosive raging-bulhead acting, understated/overwrought Harlequin acting, old-fashioned psychological thriller acting: There was nothing, it seemed, that Ryan Gosling couldn’t do.

What he’s doing now is growing up. Gosling is 30 years old, which is exactly the age Robert De Niro was when Mean Streets was released, and last year, playing the troubled, listless, furious, alcoholic, yet so, so tender and yearning husband in Blue Valentine, Gosling gave a performance that hit what Pauline Kael, describing De Niro’s performance in that Scorsese classic, called “the true note.” It was bravura acting on every level — a technical tour de force, one that made every mood swing convincing, but also, like Gosling’s earlier performance in The Believer, one that showed you the character’s belief system from the inside out (and the more unreasonable it got, the more it came wrapped in the actor’s empathy). Blue Valentine was about the frustration of a certain kind of damaged romantic male narcissist who feels, in this era, that domestic life has robbed him of his power. Gosling made you know what it felt like when that power leaked away.

And now, six months later, here he is Crazy, Stupid, Love, playing a man who is all smooth power, helping Steve Carell get his power back. I don’t love every single Ryan Gosling performance. To me, even he couldn’t make the dolt-meets-sex-mannequin love story Lars and the Real Girl bearable, and his overly celebrated turn as an inner-city-teacher-turned-drug-addict in Half Nelson was the one time, in my opinion, that he got a little Method-showy. Yet his consistency, by and large, is extraordinary, as is his range, as is his taste in roles. He knows how to layer showmanship and art until you can’t tell the difference. Which leads me to ask, once again: Is there anything that Ryan Gosling can’t do?

So do you think that Ryan Gosling is more actor or movie star? Or do you agree with me that he’s the rare performer who’s equally both? And what’s your favorite Gosling performance?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

Blue Valentine
  • Movie
  • 112 minutes