Usually we don’t delve too deep into the glamourous world of Hollywood, but we happened to catch the latest cinematic appearance by Australia’s number one comedy export – that would be Rebel Wilson (well, Barry Humphries has pretty much retired and it’s not like anyone wants to see anything from Chris Lilley ever again) – and we came out of the cinema feeling like we’d seen something of a milestone.
While we’re hardly the world’s biggest Wilson fans, one thing we have had to grudgingly accept is that she’s (for the most part) been well used in her feature film appearances. She has a distinct comedic persona that can be effective when used in small doses: there’s a reason why Pitch Perfect was the film that cemented her Hollywood status. Just so long as every now and again you cut to Wilson doing her thing (saying something “shocking” while making a “deal with it” facial expression pretty much sums it up) she can be an effective laugh-getter.
But that’s a pretty limited role to play, which is what makes her current work in How To Be Single so interesting. On the surface she’s basically doing more of the same, only a little bit more of it: she’s the high-energy stranger who latches onto our newly single lead (Dakota Johnson) and gives her tips on how to party hard. Cue at least two scenes where Wilson wakes up, doesn’t remember where she is but is relieved to find she at least had sex the night before. Comedy gold!
Initially this seems to be more of the same laugh-getting cameo stuff from Wilson. But no: she gets actual scenes where she holds conversations. And she can’t do it. Oh sure, she can say the lines and hit her marks and whatever. But given actual scenes in which to expand upon her “high energy laugh-getter” persona – basically, to be a female version of someone like Chris Farley, someone who can keep the comedy energy level up during the non-joke lines – there’s nothing there.
It turns out – in this film at least, though there’s no real reason to suspect things would be any different anywhere else considering how one-note her career has been – that while Wilson certainly has a lot of things going for her comedy-wise, charisma is not one of them. Again, she’s funny in context, popping-up mid scene to deliver a zinger; when the camera focuses on her for more than a handful of seconds, her vaguely awkward “I kinda can’t believe I’m saying this but hey, deal with it!” affect freezes.
We’re not saying she can’t do other things as an actress; her painful (in more ways than one) “I’m being really sincere now and you should feel bad for treating me as a joke rather than a human being” act gets another workout here too. But for the most part there are two kind of movie comedians: people you laugh with and people you laugh at. Wilson’s persona is too basic to be someone we can laugh at for more than a few seconds at a time – she gets a laugh then you cut away. And How To Be Single shows that she’s lacking the spark required to be someone that we can laugh with.
(what that spark is, we don’t know. Her acting definitely has a stilted quality that makes it hard to relax watching her – she always seems to be trying, which isn’t a good look)
Wilson will be appearing next month in The Brothers Grimsby, Sasha Baron Cohen’s latest film and one that – if the trailers are to be believed – seems to be set in a far broader comedy world. Chances are she’ll be given less to do, and much firmer parameters to work in, so she may even get a few laughs.
Just don’t expect her to be taking on a leading role any time soon.