Perhaps the worst thing that could’ve happened to Rachel McAdams is The Notebook. I say this with the wistful, nostalgic affection of one who spent her formative pubescent years worshiping that sentimental nightmare of a film. The Notebook sold us many lies as truths — lies my preteen brain was easily fooled by.
A man threatening to commit suicide because a woman he was interested in wouldn’t go out with him? The Notebook told me that was a swoon-worthy story that you’d want to tell your future children. A relationship in which the two people had nothing in common and spent most of their time screaming at each other for trivial miscommunications? The Notebook told me that was passion. You didn’t paint anymore? The Notebook said you were probably bored in your healthy, sustainable relationship. You spent years of your life and all of your money fixing up an old house so your ex-girlfriend would come back to you? The truest gesture of love and commitment.
But the biggest lie was the one The Notebook told us about Rachel McAdams. She’s a gifted actress who, up until her turn as Allie in Nicholas Sparks’ drama, had starred in two fairly popular comedies: the forgettable Hot Chick and the cult-classic Mean Girls. In the latter, the Tina Fey-penned high school saga that served as a spiritual successor to Heathers, McAdams played Regina George, the Queen Bee of the school’s most popular clique, The Plastics. Narcissistic, manipulative, controlling, and petty, Regina George embodied the titular trope, and though we rooted for Lindsey Lohan’s naïve newcomer to beat her at her own game, years later, it’s Regina George we can’t stop quoting. It’s “So you agree, you think you’re pretty,” and “Stop trying to make fetch happen” that we remember. And that’s because of Rachel McAdams.
After Mean Girls came The Notebook, a cultural phenomenon that defined idyllic romance for a generation of idiots (myself included) and pigeonholed her career with other weepy relationship odes. The Time Traveler’s Wife, where she played a lovestruck woman saddled to a man with the frustrating affliction of spontaneous time travel. The Vow, where she inhabited the role of a woman who suffers a troubling case of amnesia after an accident and can’t remember her own husband. About Time, where she plays a woman with a (different) time-traveling boyfriend, who risks their relationship for his own gain.
A theme had emerged. Of course, because McAdams is so undeniably talented, she also starred in films that didn’t trade off tragic, troubled love stories. Spotlight, True Detective, Red Eye — these films gave us a different side to the woman who once got a man, on camera, to tell her he was a bird, too. But for a long time, when you thought of Rachel McAdams, you thought of these melodramas, these date-night flicks, these movies you’d put on when you needed a good cry. When you thought of Rachel McAdams, you thought of a woman who once launched herself at Ryan Gosling on the MTV Movie Awards stage. But now, you should think of Rachel McAdams as a comedy icon, because that’s what she really is.
Rachel McAdams is one of those rare chameleons who can seamlessly shift from the heavy to the humorous so yes, she’s terrific in The Notebook and To The Wonder and Disobedience. But she’s also uniquely identifiable in her comedic roles, like the ones in Wedding Crashers or Mean Girls or the severely underrated Game Night, or, most recently, Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga.
In fact, her filmography is littered with comedy, whether she’s played bit parts as a crush-worthy bridesmaid to Owen Wilson’s imposter or the black sheep suffering through another holiday get-together in The Family Stone. McAdams has slowly been working her way to the kind of balls-out comedy on display in Netflix’s Eurovision parody with early entries that relied on her relative unknown status. She was a fresh face in Wedding Crashers, a witty love interest in Guy Richie’s Sherlock, and a positive-thinking peacemaker in Morning Glory. In these films, the comedy was happening around McAdams and she, more or less, reacted to it.
But as she’s become more recognizable, taken on franchises and genre films and indies that people like to fawn over on the festival circuit, she’s broadened her comedic horizons too, banking on her likability and pushing her limits to include physical gags and ridiculous costumes and eccentric, over-the-top characters normally reserved for the established comedic geniuses — the Ferrells and Steve Carells and Seth Rogens.
In Game Night, for instance, McAdams plays a fairly straightforward character, a wife who hosts a game night with her husband that quickly spirals out of control. Jason Bateman plays her partner in crime, and they do commit crimes, eventually, but only after they’re taken hostage and thrown into the middle of a black market deal that involves underground fight clubs and Bulgarians and moles in the police force. McAdams plays the plucky, ultra-competitive foil to Bateman’s stiff-lipped, dry-witted half, and she’s tasked with the heavy lifting as Bateman leans on his trademark sarcasm, leaving her to pull off the more exaggerated bits. She does, elevating a hostage scene with a wildly funny dance number that sees her character whipping a “fake” gun around and shoving it into men’s faces before accidentally shooting Bateman’s character and trying to clean his wound with a “nice chard,” a Good Housekeeping recipe, and a squeaky toy. But she’s also able to easily switch from these more ridiculous moments, like being flattered by a henchman holding her at gunpoint, to emotional interactions that carry weight, like when the movie’s main couple open up about their infertility issues.
That emotional heft that McAdams brings to her funnier roles is, oddly enough, what makes her such a compelling comedic actress. It’s on display in Game Night, and also in her Netflix Eurovision parody, where she plays one half of an Icelandic pop duo with dreams of winning the biggest singing competition on the planet. The movie is mid-level Ferrell funny, a cross between Pitch Perfect and Blades of Glory, that’s at its best when it’s not focused on its male lead.
Instead, it’s McAdams’ Sigrit, a wide-eyed, optimistic woman hopelessly in love with her best friend and willing to do anything to help him achieve his goal, that becomes the character you root for, and laugh at, the most. Armed with a heavy accent, a childlike sense of wonder, and an unflinching belief in the power of elves, Sigrit is the better half of this singing group — and McAdams commits to her, eccentricities and all, in a way that makes even the weirdest plot points believable. Her comedy serves a dual purpose — we cackle at her desire to match Lars’ bulge with her own camel toe, or when she finally expresses her anger with a well-timed “sex nuts” jab, but even when she’s making a complete fool of herself, McAdams is also giving us character development, showing us a woman finally beginning to search for her own purpose in life.
So maybe McAdams isn’t just a great dramatic actress or a comedic mastermind. Maybe she’s both, and we’re only now starting to realize it. I blame The Notebook.