Total Recall

Total Recall: Richard Jenkins' Best Movies

We count down the best-reviewed work of the White House Down star.

by | June 27, 2013 | Comments

Richard Jenkins

Audiences who turn out for White House Down this weekend will be paying for the privilege of watching director Roland Emmerich blow up an American landmark (and/or seeing Channing Tatum in a dirty tank top), but when they do, they’ll be getting an added treat: An appearance by the one and only Richard Jenkins, who achieved ultimate “That Guy” status years before earning a richly deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination in 2008. Character actors don’t come with much more character than Mr. Jenkins, so with all due respect to Emmerich’s effects and Tatum’s pecs, we knew this was the perfect opportunity to pay tribute to one of Hollywood’s most distinguished supporting players. It’s time for Total Recall!


10. Intolerable Cruelty

Two years after popping up in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Jenkins reunited with the Coen brothers for Intolerable Cruelty, a comedy that — while taking as jaundiced a view of fate and human nature as anything else in their filmography — offered a relatively frothy take on the old-fashioned Hollywood battle-of-the-sexes farce. Starring George Clooney as a well-known divorce lawyer and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the woman he lives to regret railroading out of a potentially huge settlement (during a segment in which he steamrolls her lawyer, played by Jenkins), Cruelty struck some critics as excessively mean-spirited in its enthusiastically nasty depiction of unscrupulous attorneys and money-grubbing divorcees — but it struck just the right balance for Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune, who found it “Elegant, cheerfully cynical fun of the kind we used to get regularly from Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks and other masters of the classic Hollywood screwball comedy.”


9. Killing Them Softly

Jenkins’ world-weary face and soft-spoken demeanor can be used to convey warmth and kindness or coldly pragmatic cruelty, depending on the occasion, and in writer/director Andrew Dominik’s Killing Me Softly, they were called upon for a bit of both. Here, Jenkins plays a Mafia go-between for a hitman (Brad Pitt) who’s been contracted to kill a shady game room proprietor (Ray Liotta) in order to restore dignity to the local gambling operation; it seems like a straightforward enough job, but things get complicated, owing to the involvement of a pair of incompetent crooks (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) as well as the unpredictable hitman Pitt’s hired to rub them out (James Gandolfini). Although it wasn’t one of Pitt’s more commercially successful efforts, it earned praise from critics like Mick LaSalle, who wrote, “There is not one moment in the film that doesn’t represent the director’s carefully considered thought, whether we’re talking about acting values, camera placement, sound or style of presentation.”


8. Sea of Love

Jenkins’ career has grown to the point where he’s capable of landing central roles, but in his earlier years as a film actor, he developed a reputation as the kind of guy who could imbue even smaller parts with enough three-dimensional believability to make them seem larger than they really were. Case in point: 1989’s Sea of Love, the slow-burning thriller about an alcoholic cop (Al Pacino) who becomes embroiled in a disturbing murder case while falling in love with the sultry femme fatale (Ellen Barkin) who may or may not be the serial killer he’s looking for. As the fellow cop who ended up marrying Pacino’s character’s wife after she walked out on him, Jenkins is mostly relegated to the background, but he’s one of several characters (as well as actors smartly chosen by director Harold Becker) who help ground the lurid and often ridiculous film with some semblance of normalcy. “Sea of Love has its Cinemax lapses in taste,” admitted Bill Chambers of Film Freak Central, “but most films of the genre lack sophistication from which to lapse.”


7. The Mudge Boy

A Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee, this little-seen indie starred Emile Hirsch as the painfully shy son of a widowed recluse (Richard Jenkins) who can’t seem to figure out what to make of him — which is understandable, seeing as how the kid sleeps with a chicken and likes to dress up in his late mother’s clothes. Such personality quirks don’t do Hirsch’s character any favors in the small social circles he’s forced to run at school, and from The Mudge Boy‘s earliest scenes, the viewer can sense that things aren’t going to end well for him, but it’s still hard to look away. Calling it “Unsettling and mildly shocking at times,” Newsday’s Jan Stuart wrote, “this is an adolescent tale of the sort one might expect from Flannery O’Connor or Paul Bowles if they were in the business of coming-of-age dramas.”


6. Burn After Reading

Part of Jenkins’ prolific breakthrough year in 2008 — which also included The Visitor and Step Brothers — the Coen brothers production Burn After Reading employed an eyebrow-raising cast of character actors (including John Malkovich, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and, of course, J.K. Simmons) to unravel a pitch-black comedy about a burnout CIA analyst (Malkovich) whose memoirs are stolen and end up in the hands of a pair of dunderheaded health club employees (McDormand and Brad Pitt) who misunderstand their meaning and try selling them to the Russians, all while a philandering U.S. Marshal (George Clooney) complicates matters by unwittingly carrying on affairs with all of the women involved. “None of it makes strict sense, which is why it’s called screwball,” admitted the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell, “but in its own crazy way Burn After Reading nails the essential folly of humans pretending to be civilized.”


5. The Man Who Wasn’t There

The first of Jenkins’ three Coen brothers films (so far), 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There gave him the small but pivotal role of Walter Abundas, friend and next door neighbor to Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), the small-town barber whose marital difficulties form the basis for a noir-influenced misadventure that includes a murder, a seedy lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), and a crucial moment of indiscretion with Walter’s piano-playing teenage daughter (Scarlett Johansson). Admitting that it’s “Slowly paced for a thriller and with a hero many will find off-putting,” Empire’s Kim Newman argued that “this is nevertheless a gripping, unusual and challenging work from the most consistently brilliant filmmakers of the last decade.”


4. Flirting With Disaster

Jenkins earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for his work in this David O. Russell comedy, starring Ben Stiller as an adopted man who refuses to name his newborn child until he can learn the identity of his biological parents — thus kicking off a cross-country road trip involving his wife (Patricia Arquette), an adoption agency employee (Tea Leoni), and a pair of ATF agents who happen to be in a relationship with each other (Jenkins and Josh Brolin). As can often be the case with Russell’s films, it’s a bit of an unwieldy setup, but it all came together satisfyingly enough for most critics — including Roger Ebert, who observed, “There are conventions in this sort of story, and Russell seems to violate most of them. He allows the peculiarities of his characters to lead them away from the plot line and into perplexities of their own. To watch that happening is a lot of fun.”


3. The Visitor

After a career’s worth of “that guy” roles, Jenkins earned his moment to shine (and a Best Actor Oscar nomination) in 2008’s The Visitor, a quietly graceful indie drama about a college professor whose lonely existence is upended when he’s forced to attend a conference in New York and, arriving at the old apartment he rarely visits, is startled to discover a pair of illegal immigrants renting it from a fraudulent “realtor.” Rather than having them thrown out, he decides to let them stay — an act of uncommon kindness that ultimately proves more rewarding to the professor than his unexpected tenants. Calling it a “parable of decency,” Tony Macklin of the Fayetteville Free Weekly wrote, “The best movies are those that understand the human condition and have a personal vision. The Visitor is one of those rare creations.”


2. Let Me In

Hollywood doesn’t exactly have a spotless track record when it comes to adapting foreign films, so many cineastes feared the worst when Relativity Media announced plans to remake the Swedish critical favorite Let the Right One In with Cloverfield director Matt Reeves at the helm. Happily, even with the language switch — and a new cast that included Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Moretz, and Jenkins — the original story’s uncommonly smart, creepy take on the vampire genre came shining through, and although Let Me In wasn’t a huge box office success, it resonated with appreciative critics like Amy Biancolli of the Houston Chronicle, who called it “A striking piece of character-driven horror” that “ranks (despite the effects) among the more understated fright fests to hit the mainstream in recent memory.”


1. The Cabin in the Woods

Studio difficulties held up its release for over two years, but unlike the vast majority of films that spend an extended period of time in the vault before reaching theaters, The Cabin in the Woods enjoyed an enthusiastic critical response — partly because members of its cast and crew had gone on to bigger things since production wrapped in 2009 (including director/co-writer Drew Goddard, producer/co-writer Joss Whedon, and cast member Chris “Thor” Hemsworth), and partly because of the way the story manages to embrace horror movie tropes while subverting them with an infectious blend of love and intelligence. It’s hard to discuss Cabin‘s plot without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the Atlantic’s Christopher Orr described it pretty well, calling it “A horror movie embedded in a conspiracy flick embedded in another horror movie” and “the most inventive cabin-in-the-woods picture since The Evil Dead and the canniest genre deconstruction since Scream.”

In case you were wondering, here are Jenkins’ top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. The Visitor — 82%
2. The Man Who Wasn’t There — 81%
3. Eye Of God — 78%
4. The Cabin in the Woods — 76%
5. Let Me In — 74%
6. North Country — 72%
7. The Mudge Boy — 71%
8. Jack Reacher — 69%
9. Step Brothers — 68%
10. Friends With Benefits — 66%

Take a look through Jenkins’ complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for White House Down.


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