By Jeff Labrecque
Updated June 13, 2013 at 08:56 PM EDT
Phil Bray

When Vince Vaughn made a huge splash as the “money” L.A. skirt-chaser in 1996’s Swingers, Hollywood knew it liked what it saw. But it wasn’t sure exactly what to do with him. Trent was a machine-gun-mouthed life-of-the-party who drew women — “beautiful babies,” in Trentspeak — like flies, and the tall, kinetic Vaughn was immediately propelled to the top of the lists for new leading man.

Steven Spielberg himself plucked him to be in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Vaughn subsequently starred with Joaquin Phoenix in a pair of indie dramas, Clay Pigeons and Return to Paradise. Gus Van Sant then cast him as his Norman in his ill-fated, shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It really wasn’t until 2003, when Vaughn teamed up with director Todd Phillips and Will Ferrell for Old School, that Vaughn finally let loose as a bona fide comic force, and he’s never really looked back.

But after the lukewarm debut of The Internship — the latest in a string of broad, instantly forgettable comedies — perhaps it’s time for Vaughn to step back and diversify his acting portfolio.

Since co-starring in The Break-Up, a 2006 movie that was boosted at the box office by his brief off-screen fling with co-star Jennifer Aniston, Vaughn has starred in Fred Claus, Four Christmases, Couples Retreat, The Dilemma, The Watch, and now The Internship. Four Christmases and Couples Retreat were popular hits, each grossing more than $100 million, but none of the six films seemed to challenge Vaughn or provide the quirky comic edge that fans of his expect and adore. Their premises all read like high-concept gimmicks that rely on Vaughn to spin into gold — or, in box-office terms, green. I suspect so much of what fans love about him comes spontaneously from within him as the camera is rolling. It reminds me of the story of how Ivan Reitman used to direct Bill Murray by simply saying to him on the set, “OK, now, be funny.” That’s a heavy load to carry after awhile, and I feel like many of Vaughn’s star vehicles are thrown together haphazardly with the confidence that Vaughn will be able to save it when the director finally says, “Action.” That’s ultimately a recipe for disaster.

His upcoming roles seem to be more of the same. In Delivery Man, Vaughn plays a likable underachiever — and onetime sperm-donor — who learns that a lab error made him the father to 533 children. (So it’s basically his Dodgeball character … with kids.) On its surface, it sounds like another slick, high-concept laugher of the variety that has let him down recently. But perhaps this is the one to reverse the trend — it’s a remake of the French-Canadian comedy Starbuck, so the structure and story are already established, perhaps allowing Vaughn to pull back on the reins a bit and do more with less.

In addition to popping back up in this fall’s Anchorman sequel, Vaughn has also signed up to reunite with Ferrell for Daddy’s Home, where he’ll play an unruly ex-husband who re-enters his children’s lives and makes life extremely difficult for their more responsible stepfather (Ferrell).

But with audiences currently cooling on Vaughn a tad, now might be his opportunity to steer his comedy impulses into darker corners or to tackle an offbeat drama, like Ferrell did with Stranger Than Fiction and Ben Stiller did with Greenberg. Way back when, before Vaughn was a comedy commodity, EW’s Owen Gleiberman said he “displayed the makings of a major screen star” in Return to Paradise, and even threw out a Brando comparison. More recently, Vaughn has been excellent in a variety of surprising roles, including his brief appearance as a South Dakota farmer who befriends Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild, and his wild-man sidekick to Brad Pitt in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They’re quintessentially Vaughn creations — likely the result of ad-libs — but the yuks enhance the character, instead of serving as the character. Vaughn is an actor who can salvage crap and transform the good into great. It’s now time to give him something that’s great in the first place, even if it takes him out of his comfort zone.

Read more:

Vince Vaughn 2006 Q&A

EW review: ‘The Internship’

The wildly different paths of Ethan Hawke and Owen Wilson