The first time I met Jonah Hill was on a neighborhood street just off Zelzah near CSUN in the San Fernando Valley. It was a nighttime shoot for the film “Superbad,” and I went to watch a scene involving Jonah, Michael Cera, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, who was the complete unknown the scenario. I knew Jonah’s work from “Accepted” and “40-Year-Old Virgin,” and I was a big “Arrested Development” fan already, but when I was first told that those three were the leads, I had no idea what to expect.
One of the pleasures of writing about film over a long stretch of time is watching the way people come into focus, the way your first impressions of them evolve as they evolve, the way their work changes. It’s one of the things I think critics can do that is valuable, being able to lay out a context in which to view someone’s work. I’m just as interested in the way Jonah Hill’s persona has developed from film to film and the friction between his work in “This Is The End” and “Wolf Of Wall Street” in the same year as I am in any of the individual jokes or moments he’s played onscreen. I think he made the jump to being taken seriously that many comics have attempted over the years, and in many cases, they’ve fumbled that moment. Bill Murray may be well-regarded now for films like “Lost In Translation” or “Moonrise Kingdom,” but that took time. When he made “The Razor’s Edge,” audiences just weren’t interested. Belushi wanted to make that jump, but he never quite got there. Jim Carrey has wrestled with his own identity onscreen, and while I think he’s done amazing dramatic work, he’s worth more box-office in an overt comedy. Even among the guys who he’s worked with, Hill seems to be having an easier time in bigger films. I love “Take This Waltz,” but I think right now, Seth Rogen is still seen primarily as a comic presence first.
Thanks to “Moneyball” and “Wolf Of Wall Street,” though, Jonah’s been able to effortlessly transition to this type of filmmaking while also making “21 Jump Street” and its sequel. Audiences seems perfectly comfortable with him in either capacity, which means he’s pretty much able to work with any filmmaker he wants right now. The night I saw “Wolf” the first time on the Paramount lot, Jonah was there to talk about it afterwards, and it seemed like he could hardly get the smile off his face. His excitement about the entire experience was palpable, and when I was asked a few weeks after the film came out if I wanted to talk to him about the film again, he seemed just as jazzed the second time.
I honestly believe that the Quaaludes scene is one of those all-timer sequences that will be forever thought of when Scorsese’s name is mentioned, and it’s one of the most deranged bits of physical comedy in recent memory. That’s a pretty amazing memory for Jonah to file away as he moves forward, and I get the feeling we’re still just seeing part of what he’s capable of. With “True Story,” “How To Train Your Dragon 2,” “The LEGO Movie” and “22 Jump Street” all set for 2014, there’s a lot of Jonah Hill in the very near future.
“The Wolf Of Wall Street” is still playing in theaters everywhere.