6 movie stars on the summer movie hot seat in May

This summer, we're going to be taking a look at the summer movie season from a number of different angles. Kristopher Tapley put up a great piece yesterday about his favorite summer movie summer, back in 1989, and you can expect three more of those. We also just posted a gallery of people we think have a chance at being breakout stars by the time September rolls around.

But each month, we're also going to be taking a look at people who are at a crossroads, people who are having defining moments, people who are either on the wane or on the rise, and we're going to spotlight them. We're going to look at the stakes for them this summer, and how this could change things for them.

May is kicking off the summer movie season this year with “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” which brings us to our first star…

(by Drew McWeeny)

When “Easy A” opened, people went Emma Stone crazy overnight, and for good reason. She was a seasoned pro by that point, with “Easy A” serving as the payoff for all the good work she did in films like “The House Bunny” and “Zombieland.” She jumped right into “Crazy, Stupid, Love” and “The Help,” demonstrating some range, but it was “The Amazing Spider-Man” that made it plain that she's a movie star given the right material. Actually, I'd argue it proves that even without good material, she's incandescent, since most of the scenes she has to play with Andrew Garfield are terribly written. The two of them practically crackle in every single moment they share, though, and both the first film and the sequel coast on that combined charm in a big way.

That's both a good and a bad thing. When Hollywood thinks that you don't need good material to sell tickets, they are more than happy to provide you with terrible broad mainstream scripts. The thing she has to do as she figures out what her career is going to look like post-“Spider-Man” is whether she's happy doing fluff or if she's going to try to work with filmmakers who are going to challenge her. She's playing the lead in Woody Allen's latest, “Magic In The Moonlight,” making her one in a long line of actresses who have turned to Allen to help them break out of any sort of box they've been put in. She's also got a role in “Birdman,” the new film by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and that film's been building buzz for a while now.

Her best bet, though, is the untitled Cameron Crowe movie she's starring in with one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Rachel McAdams, Bradley Cooper, Jay Baruchel, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Alec Baldwin, and Danny McBride is a pretty great group of people to surround yourself with, and this one's been in the works for a while. When Crowe is on his game, there are few writer/directors who do better by their leads. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” is going to be a huge movie around the world, and it's going to help remind people of just how charming Stone can be. But let's hope it's the last time she gets stuck standing on the sidelines as the girlfriend. She's so much more interesting than that.

(by Drew McWeeny)

I am sure that when Jon Hamm looks back at his career from a vantage point decades from now, Don Draper will hold a very special place in his heart. It is not many actors who are even gifted with a character that rich and strange, both glamorous and seedy, and he has navigated the demands of the show with a grace that makes it look like he's been doing this his whole life.

Don Draper could easily turn out to be a trap, though, and the real test of how things are going to go for Hamm overall is still ahead. “Million Dollar Arm” offers him a chance to play a character who basically starts as a variation on Draper before he begins a fairly rapid redemption, and Hamm plays it just right. We know he's funny, and he loves showing up for guest appearances in other people's shows, but aside from “Bridesmaids,” Hollywood hasn't really taken a shot on him as a comedy draw yet.

It's a weird thing to say, but part of the problem with Hamm is that he's too handsome. He looks like a leading man, but he's wired weird, and you can tell. One thing that helps is that his wife, Jennifer Westfeldt, is a talented writer/director, and if anyone knows what else he's capable of, it would be her. He's got to pick his next few films carefully. With “Mad Men” finally wrapping up, Hamm is poised now to make the jump to features, and it will require some genuine re-invention.

Then again, he's always going to be big money if he chooses to do another series for TV, so we'll see if he can find a way to satisfy himself and the people buying the tickets.

(by Drew McWeeny)

Short version: Elizabeth Banks is awesome. Long version, Banks is a gifted comedic performer who has slowly but surely built up her profile in parts that have utilized her well, and “The Hunger Games” has been a huge help in terms of making her even more visible. She's come a long way since “Wet Hot American Summer,” and it's been due to the way she has taken advantage of pretty much any moment she's been given to shine.

Banks is a solid dramatic actor, and there's a weight to her that allows her to play even the most absurd material with a grounded reality. When she co-starred in “Zack and Miri Make A Porno,” one of the things that made that film such an odd turning point for Smith is that Rogen and Banks were playing a level of reality that Smith doesn't aim for in his movies. His comedies didn't punch in that same weight class, and all of a sudden, these two end up playing something very real and honest even in the midst of what felt more like typical Smith fare. Watching her approach to playing Laura Bush in “W.” was another example of Banks offering more than I think anyone would expect for some of these parts.

She made a breakthrough as a producer with “Pitch Perfect,” and even as the sequel is in production now, Banks faces the greatest test of her bankability with the release of “Walk Of Shame,” a comedy that looks like it's all Banks all the way through. She's a reporter who has a one-night stand, then ends up stranded in downtown LA on the same day she's supposed to have a life-changing job interview. It's the kind of role where the movie only works if she works, and Banks is more than up for the task. Will the audience turn out to watch her work?

That's the real question.

(by Guy Lodge)

At just 26, Zac Efron has tried out a couple of looks since shaking off the sparkly song-and-dance man image of “High School Musical” and “Hairspray.” He's flirted with festival-film respectability: neither “The Paperboy” nor “At Any Price” went down all that well, but he gained credibility for the attempt all the same. You'd have thought he'd be a safe bet for female-targeted youth romance, but neither “The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud” or “The Lucky One” (despite a respectable $60 million gross) really took root in the popular imagination. Efron has the chiseled looks and charm of a vintage matinee idol, but hasn't quite found the vehicle to capitalize on it.

Which is why mainstream comedy – in which he gets to send up his own all-American jockishness rather than play up to it – may be the smart way to go at this stage. Efron is brilliantly cast in Nicholas Stoller's loud, lewd and very funny comedy “Neighbors,” as a vain, dim-witted and pettily spiteful fraternity president whose best days already look to be on the out – the physical, generational and psychological foil to Seth Rogen's more relatable everyday schlub. It's a bold move for Efron to play such an unlikeable lead, but he isn't a pure villain either: there's a lost-boy vulnerability there that the actor nails, oddly making him more human than in some of the cardboard hero roles he's played before.

He's more engaging in “Neighbors” than in his previous attempt at adult comedy, the aptly titled January release “That Awkward Moment” – in which his lothario role brought out precisely the kind of slick smugness he needs to avoid, and didn't appear to connect with audiences. Efron is entering what should be his prime movie-star years: now a boyish man rather than the other way round, he's never looked better and is beginning to show wit and nuance as a performer. “Neighbors” is poised to be a big hit for him, its savvy premise and canny execution extending his appeal to young male audiences without alienating the female date-movie crowd he already has in pocket. (The film even includes a few sly winks to his gay fanbase.) Next year, more grown-up business beckons with the lead in “The Associate,” a John Grisham thriller of the type that that Tom Cruise and Matt Damon also passed through earlier in their careers. That's the level of star Efron aspires to be, but having a little fun with his image in co-headlining vehicles like “Neighbors” eases the pressure a bit.  

(by Guy Lodge)

Drew Barrymore didn't go away, exactly, but she hasn't been around much either. It's over two years since we last saw her on screen in the save-the-whales family flick “Big Miracle,” in which her chippy, righteous activist role didn't exactly play to her bubbly strengths – or to her usual fanbase. Her previous role, in 2010's across-the-miles romcom “Going the Distance” did better in both respects: she was utterly winning in the kind of cheery date-movie vehicle that served her so well in the 1990s and early 2000s, but an unconvincing $17 million US gross suggested her audience might have moved on. Beyond ensemble appearances in the likes of “He's Just Not That Into You” (comfortably in her wheelhouse, and a hit) and “Everybody's Fine” (not so much), you have to go back to 2007's “Music & Lyrics” to find a Barrymore-headlined comedy resembling her successes of old.

Thanks to her storied child-star career, it may seem like Barrymore has been around forever, but she's still only 39 – younger than, say, Jennifer Aniston, who keeps pulling crowds with lightweight comedy fare. Since we last saw Barrymore in a movie, she's given birth to two children, so her brief hiatus is perfectly explicable. But it need only be temporary: she returns to our screens this month in “Blended,” and if she's planning a return to the big-time, a third collaboration with Adam Sandler seems like a calculated move. The previous two – 1998's “The Wedding Singer” ($80 million in the US) and 2004's “50 First Dates” ($120 million) – stand among both stars' biggest career hits, and the two have a playful chemistry that, as in the latter case, can power through weak material. (Which, not to be overly presumptuous or anything, “Blended” looks to be.)

How much you're looking forward (or not) to “Blended,” it isn't being packaged in the same way that the previous two Barrymore-Sandler joints were. While they were sold as date movies, the romantic aspect bringing Barrymore's female audience to Sandler's broader brand of comedy, the marketing for “Blended” (title notwithstanding) places the emphasis more on the latter, targeting instead the crowd that turned up for “Grown Ups 2.” Whatever the implications about Hollywood's gender imbalance, Sandler has retained more commercial clout than Barrymore; on the poster, his last name (in bigger type, incidentally) appears to quite literally be squashing hers, though the trailer treats them more equally. Barrymore seems to have been invited onto Sandler's turf this time, but this is still a crucial film for her: if it doesn't work, financiers will be even less likely to invest in a Barrymore vehicle on her own terms.

Barrymore's smart: she has an active producing career, and her award-winning TV turn in “Grey Gardens,” plus her charming 2009 directorial debut “Whip It!,” suggested plenty of options for her when even second-banana film roles are harder to come by. A more mature career phase beckons; how imminent it is might depend on the success of “Blended.”

(by Drew McWeeny)

Before “Ted” was released, no one was sure he could translate his sense of humor from the half-hour animated format to a full-length film. “Ted” was a pleasant surprise, a proof-of-concept that MacFarlane was more than just his TV work.

He's facing a whole new challenge with “A Million Ways To Die In The West,” though, and it's probably the most important one in terms of whatever he does after this. He may do the voices of roughly 374 characters on his show, an impressive feat to be sure, but that doesn't automatically translate to him having the onscreen charisma to be the star of a film. One thing you can't fault him for is confidence, though. Not every actor would have the nerve to write themselves a leading role for their first time out where they end up romantically entangled with both Charlize Theron and Amanda Seyfried.

MacFarlane has wisely been branching out from his animated empire lately, and it's becoming harder and harder to peg him or his interests. Looking at the new “Cosmos,” one can only hope that we're seeing an evolution in progress. When he decided to make the jump to playing the lead in a live-action feature, though, he certainly didn't make it easy for himself. Westerns in general are commercially difficult to an almost Sisyphean level, but comedy Westerns? Yeah, that's a genre where we can point at exactly one enduring success, and that was 40 years ago.

Based on the script and the trailers, it does appear that he learned the most important lesson that “Blazing Saddles” had to offer. The film is one of the pitch-perfect parodies that Mel Brooks pulled off, but while he made sure that every detail was right in terms of making his movie look like a real Hollywood Western, his two stars (Cleavon Little and the great Gene Wilder) were thoroughly modern in mannerisms and attitude. That contrast was hilarious, and MacFarlane looks like he's done the same thing in his lead role as a guy who finds himself counting down to a duel in order to impress the woman he loves. That ability to comment on the genre from within may be the thing that makes this one work, and if MacFarlane does have a hit here, there's really no limit to what he can do afterwards.

And if it tanks? Well, there's always “Ted 2.”

Big thanks to Guy Lodge for his entries here. It's going to be a big month of movies, and we'll be watching closely to see how things shake out for the people on this list. We'll also be back at the start of June to pick six more people who are essential to that month's releases, and we'll see how we did in terms of this month's list.

There's not a person on this list whose work I dislike, and I'm genuinely rooting for all of them to deliver in these films. I'd be lying if I said that the “Blended” trailer made me eager to see the film; quite the opposite. It's repellant, and it confuses me. It looks like “The Brady Bunch” for people who have had traumatic brain injuries. And while “Neighbors” may look like a lot of other films, I hope people give it a chance because it is full of eye-opening performances from Efron, Rose Byrne, Hannibal Burress, and Jerod Carmichael, as well as plenty of great work from everyone else. May has a lot to offer, and I'm curious to see which of these have you guys excited, and which ones you're planning to skip.

“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” opens tomorrow.
“Walk Of Shame” opens tomorrow.

“Neighbors” opens May 9.
“Million Dollar Arm” opens May 16.
“Blended” opens
May 23.
“A Million Ways To Die In The West” opens May 30.