Can Nice Actors Pull Off Playing Jerks?

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I hope it doesn't express any disapproval of the always-excellent Mark Ruffalo when I say he seems a bit too nice and laid-back to play a media spin-meister for Hollywood and Washington types who have gotten themselves in trouble.


With the exception of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and In the Cut, the hallmark of the roles Ruffalo's taken since he really broke out has been a core decency. Perhaps oftener than is wise, he plays nice, sweet guys who fulfill nice, sweet girls' romantic dreams. He's scruffy, but unlike the fellows who populate the Apatowverse, he's no schlub. Even in a tighter, tenser role, as police inspector Dave Toschi in Zodiac (one of my favorite moves of the past decade, and probably my favorite Ruffalo role), he's flawed and angry, but that anger is the product of his desire to catch a particularly elusive murderer. 

I don't know how well that impression he's built up over the years would serve his attempts to play a flack. Jeremy Piven's personal reputation as something of a lothario and n'er-do-well, as well as a somewhat angry guy, has always sort of served his performance as Ari Gold on Entourage: it's as if he pulled himself together, put on a clean wardrobe, and acquired some purpose—without losing his edge. But Ruffalo seems both more warm and fuzzy, and more wholesome, there isn't a natural leap to made there. And it's hard to make these sorts of behind-the-scenes figures in Hollywood, particularly those who defend or advance indefensible people, or even are indefensible people themselves, compelling. Witness Courtney Cox's short-lived turn as a gossip magazine editor, Dirt. And flacking's the flip side of printing trash, and maybe even harder to sell, because of the blatant lying it so frequently involves. Are audiences going to resonate to a guy who lies for ripped-off versions of Lindsay Lohan and Eliot Spitzer?

It remains to be seen if Ruffalo's project, or Tilda, HBO's show about a fictionalized version of entertainment industry blogger Nikki Finke (which hit trouble in August when its showrunner was fired) will actually get off the ground. But it does seem that while audiences like Hollywood's products, and gossip about the people who create them, we're not necessarily prepared to sympathize with their seamier practices.
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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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