Let me just preface this by saying that I’m inexplicably fond of Vince Vaughn, the actor. Though I have issues with his politics, and I think that his choice of movies roles as been absolutely abysmal in the decade since Wedding Crashers, I cannot help but to root for him. There’s something about his patter — and the rhythm of it — that I find completely intoxicating. He’s like a sleazy, fast-talking and incredibly charming used-car salesman, and he could probably sell me the wax-sealant upgrade on a 1970 Gremlin. In fact, he did the equivalent of that by briefly convincing me that I liked The Internship.
When it comes to fast-talking rat-ta-tat-tat Vince Vaughn, I am hopelessly in the bag.
But here’s the other reality about Vince Vaughn, and I say this as someone who has seen every single movie he’s ever made (even Delivery Man and Couples Retreat): When he’s not smarming with a string of consonants delivered at machine-gun speed, Vaughn isn’t a particularly gifted dramatic actor. I mean, he can pull off a dramatic role in a movie like Clay Pigeons where he was still being asked to play a smooth-talking cocksure asshole, but as a straight dramatic actor, he’s not good. All the evidence you really need is his performance in the shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, where — even with a talented director like Gus Van Sant — Vaughn was bad. So very bad.
All of which is why I don’t believe that Season 2 of True Detective will be a reinvention of Vince Vaughn — as Vaughn is probably wishing — but possibly a ruination. Look: The guy hasn’t had a box office hit since Four Christmases in 2008, hasn’t made a decent movie since The Break-Up in 2006, and hasn’t had a smash hit in the decade since Wedding Crashers. His last five studio films — The Dilemma, The Watch, The Internship, Delivery Man, and Unfinished Business — have all bombed. Unfinished Business was an unqualified flop: The $35 million film made only $10 million at the American box office and — despite several European locales — mustered only another $3 million internationally.
All of which put Vaughn in a similar position that Matthew McConaughey was in before True Detective. Granted, McConaughey had already begun to display his dramatic abilities in films like Killer Joe, Mud and Dallas Buyer’s Club before TD came along, and McConaughey is a more likable actor in Hollywood, someone who almost everyone wanted to succeed. Vaughn, on the other hand, doesn’t have the nearly the good will that McConaughey had, though he is fondly remembered for movies like Old School, Wedding Crashers and Swingers.
In either respect, Vaughn — having been cast as career criminal Frank Semyon in Season 2 of True Detective — seemed poised to potentially repeat the reinvention and comeback that McConaughey pulled off last year. In fact, Vaughn’s casting was the thing I was most excited about in Season 2 of TD.
There’s just two insurmountable problems: 1) Vince Vaughn is no Matthew McConaughey, and 2) Season 2 of True Detective is no Season 1.
The major reason, actually, that Season 2 of TD is no Season 1 is the lack of McConaughey. It’s early yet, and from the episodes I’ve seen so far, I don’t want to completely dismiss Nic Pizzolatto as a one-season fluke, but so much of what he wrote in Season 1 worked because of McConaughey, who could deliver Pizzolatto’s pseudo-pretentious brand of existential new age-y philosophy because he’s an incredible actor and because there’s part of us that believes that laid-back pot-smoking McConaughey actually buys into it a little. McConaughey took a lot of clunky prose and turned it into catchphrases.
The man is magic.
Try to imagine anyone else successfully delivering this line: “I contemplate the moment in the garden, the idea of allowing your own crucifixion,” or this one, “You know that their sensory experience constituted a unique individual with purpose and meaning. So certain that they were more than biological puppets. The truth wills out, and everybody sees. Once the strings are cut, all fall down.”
That sounds like something a high-school goth girl would write in her journal during poetry class. When Pizzolatto is not writing clunky dialogue, he’s over-writing. McConaughey, however, could transcend that.
From what I’ve seen of Vaughn, so far, he cannot. Part of it is the writing of Season 2 of True Detective, and part of it is the tone. It is grim and bleak and stagnant. There’s no energy. That’s not a good environment for Vaughn, who is being asked to deliver lines like this one with brutal dead seriousness: “You don’t want to look hungry. Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.”
Maybe McConaughey can deliver that with a little of that Rust Cohle magic and make it work, but when Vaughn delivers it, you don’t experience the performance, all you hear is the line and you cringe (and you cringe a second time when that line is being called back to later in the episode).
Vaughn is not only being asked to deliver clunky lines, he’s being asked to do so in an element that is not his own. There’s no fast-talking rat-ta-tat-tat. It’s like asking Adam Sandler not to yell, or Jim Carrey not to mug, or Brad Pitt not to twitch. What’s the point in having Vince Vaughn if he’s not going to be Vince Vaughn? And unlike comedic actors like Robin Williams and even Jim Carrey who can pull off drama, Vaughn doesn’t have another speed. He’s either a hyper-fueled, fast-talking door-to-door salesman, or he’s a dead-eyed drone.
The second episode of True Detective begins with what is essentially a five-and-a-half minute monologue delivered by Vaughn. It’s not very well written, but you get the sense that a guy like McConaughey could probably do something with it. Vaughn can’t. He just can’t. It’s the kind of airless, dreary, monotone delivery that is more likely to put you to sleep than engage you. It feels like it goes on forever, whereas with McConaughey, you wanted a monologue like that to go on forever. You could feel what McConaughey was saying without hearing the exact words.
There may be subsequent episodes of True Detective where Vaughn gets to break out another speed and bring some life to his character. Given the tone that Pizzolatto has set early on, I’m doubtful. However, from what I’ve seen so far, Vaughn can’t hack it. He’s not going to get an Emmy nomination next year. In fact, it may signal the end of his dramatic television career, and with his movie career already on the skids, there may not be anywhere left for Vaughn to go.
True Detective is not going to reinvent Vince Vaughn. It may, however, ruin him.