Movies

Why Can’t Will Arnett Find A Worthy Leading-Man Comedy Vehicle?

Will Arnett’s Netflix series Flaked debuted to little fanfare near the beginning of March, noticeably lacking the wash of critical hosannas and spate of thinkpieces that follow a new Netflix binge-dump. This is mostly because it’s not a good TV show, hamstrung by sweaty plot twists and clichéd character development. But it fits snugly into the larger, frustrating narrative of its star’s career, a filmography dotted with stalled-out sitcoms and possible breakout projects that failed to meet the wonderfully talented Arnett in the middle.

He’s not toiling in obscurity or anything; Arnett’s amassed a sizable fanbase in his capacity as the bombastic magician illusionist G.O.B. on the cult-favorite Arrested Development, and the same sorts of comedy nerds who gravitated toward the cheerful amorality of that series followed him to his current triumph, Netflix’s outstanding showbiz satire Bojack Horseman. (The extent to which a starring role as an animated anthropomorphic horse actually ups Arnett’s public profile is up for debate.) He’s gotten consistent work in smaller roles over the years, from an FBI agent on The Sopranos to guest spots on pretty much every great sitcom in the last 10 years. But he’s far from a household name, not quite on the tier of a Steve Carell or a Jason Segel.

The peculiar thing about Arnett’s half-obscurity is that he’d certainly make for a fine leading man if given the right opportunity. He’s certainly got no shortage of comedic chops. He’s handsome in a broad, un-intimidating way (and he’s got the admittedly poor documentary to prove it). He’s personable, good on his feet, and has that instantly recognizable gravelly voice that would stick in a casual viewer’s mind from film to film.

Which returns us to the core question of the matter: Why can’t Hollywood seem to figure out what to do with this gifted performer? There are the possible insider reasons — perhaps he doesn’t enjoy the spotlight and enjoys the cult adulation, or maybe the stars simply haven’t aligned to lead him to that perfect script. But time and again, Arnett’s landed in projects that relegate him to a supporting role, and the only films that have deigned to place him front and center have tanked hard. It could just be bad luck, but the specific timbre of Arnett’s comedic performances may the the thing stymieing casting directors as well.

If there’s a throughline connecting Arnett’s most representative performances, it’s the odd combination of external mania masking an internal hurt also readily recognizable to the audience. Arnett’s characters are full of bluster, but usually in the service of compensation for a barely hidden insecurity, vulnerability, or a need for love. Arnett’s a committed physical actor, throwing the whole of his 6-foot-2 frame into each character he plays, and while it initially presents whoever he’s playing as another funny eccentric, most of his roles eventually reach a point where Arnett’s innate all-in intensity outs itself as superficial, or at least a single layer belying a deeper foundation of hurt.

This pattern began with what posterity would mark as his first major role, Arrested Development. Arnett was the perfect choice for the Bluth family’s oldest son, a self-involved dimwit with a fondness for half-baked plans and ill-advised love affairs. Arnett’s distinctive voice suited G.O.B. nicely, making his every line land with the gravity and ceremoniousness of a movie trailer’s voice-over, which is exactly how G.O.B. wants the people around him to see him.

He takes his station in the family as the eldest male heir with the utmost seriousness, constantly concocting harebrained schemes to shore up the collapsing family land-development business and usually irreparably making things worse in the process. But he always did so in a misguided effort to earn the respect of his eternally disappointed parents, the boozy Lucille (Jessica Walter) and the alpha-male George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor). G.O.B.’s habit of bursting into tears at the first sign of feelings grows into one of the series’ best running jokes, doubly so in light of G.O.B.’s immediate denial that he’s ever shown any emotion whatsoever just as soon as he’s done weeping.

G.O.B.’s odd hot-air performance would set a path for the busier career Arnett would keep in the years to follow. 30 Rock‘s Devon Banks slid deeper into mania as his professional outlook got bleaker, breaking through into all-out insanity as their fictitious NBC inched closer to collapse and Devon retreated to the life of a stay-at-home dad. His blowhard Todd Margaret executive Brent lives a life full of hookers, vices, and other extravagances, but it doesn’t take long for his rank incompetence to rise to the surface. Bojack, too, flies into a frenzy when the chips are down. As the cartoon horse of repute, Arnett embodies a different ideal of masculine fantasy — the tortured artist so attuned to the darkness of the world that he can’t help but be an asshole — that nonetheless leads back to the same Rome of loneliness and neediness.

Arnett’s two headlining film roles, both in off-beat comedies that flopped at the box office but are on their way to amassing their own cult fanbases, contrast this same flamboyance with a deeper pain. The protagonists of both Let’s Go To Prison and The Brothers Solomon begin the film having just lost a father figure, and transmute that grief into something else entirely. As brother to Will Forte, Arnett’s Solomon character spends the film in a permanent state of aggressive, nearly hostile cheerfulness. The movie poster alone tells it all, with their shit-eating grins plastered on their faces denoting desperation more than happiness. And his brash, high-living judge’s son on whom Dax Shepard wreaks his revenge simply drowns his grief for his father under material pleasures, denying his same emotional inner core until he can no longer.

Incidentally, this same duality has made it difficult for Arnett to resonate in more straightforward comedic projects. In the somewhat flatter terrain of television, Arnett’s been given plenty of chances as a leading man, albeit mostly in stiflingly traditional sitcoms that don’t quite know how to best utilize his particular set of skills. (Others, such as Flaked and the rightfully-forgotten animated schoolteachers comedy Sit Down, Shut Up suffered from being unfunny and unentertaining.)

Both The Millers and Up All Night retread tried-and-true sitcom premises — overbearing parents, the demands of parenthood — without any deeper complications subverting its primary-color exterior. Watching Arnett play the typical sitcom husband/dad is a practice in waiting for the other shoe to drop, anticipating the moment when his character’s inner fractures will come to light, but it never comes.

So somebody get this man a scathing political black comedy, stat — he’s got the hair for it, and that general politician’s aura of assurance that leaves a sour taste in your mouth. Or maybe just something like a live-action Bojack, a good series that can stretch him comedically and dramatically. Someone, find something to do with this routinely exceptional talent, if only so that he can get the ever-loving hell out of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies.

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