Leto Giveth, Leto Taketh Away

I was shocked—SHOCKED!—to see Jared Leto finally give the first entertaining performance of his career in House of Gucci.  He was easily the best part of Ridley Scott’s crimes-of-fashion melodrama, despite working alongside dependably entertaining co-stars like Lady Gaga, Adam Driver, and Al Pacino.  Out-overacting Pacino would be an impressive feat for any performer, but it’s especially staggering coming from Leto.  And yet his oblivious goofball energy is the only sign of life to be found in the film. Otherwise, House of Gucci is too conceptually silly to be so well-behaved.  It asks the audience to take its exaggerated Italian accents and vintage fashion stunts seriously for the sprawling length of a Godfather movie, when the best it has to offer is a few flashes of outrageous outfits & sitcom hijinks; so, less The Godfather and more an overlong episode of The Nanny.  In that context, there is only one knucklehead in the cast who perfectly understands the assignment (or at least perfectly misunderstands it), and he happens to be one of the most annoying Hollywood personalities around.

There is no other context where engaging with a Jared Leto performance is a positive, charming experience.  Because of his literal, boneheaded approach to “method acting”, Leto is more of a social terrorist than he is a professional entertainer.  His main job as an actor is to derail everyone else’s work on-set by remaining “in-character” as villainous pests, making his co-workers’ jobs as difficult as possible for no practical, discernible reason.  After months of tabloid stories about Leto blinding, starving, or gorging himself for a role, he’ll reliably put in a performance so bland & textureless that you forget he was even in the movie (i.e., Lonely Hearts, Blade Runner 2049).  In his greatest act of “method acting” terrorism to date, Leto “gifted” his Suicide Squad co-stars animal corpses, anal beads, and used condoms while “working” in-character as The Joker.  His scenes were then almost entirely cut out of the film, making it clear that the horror stories behind his performances hold a more substantial place in our cultural imagination than the actual footage of those performances.  All anyone remembers is his personal misbehavior, not his professional product. He’s effectively being paid to be an obstacle, not an actor. 

This is not true in House of Gucci.  Lady Gaga’s award-season ambitions completely overpowered Leto’s method-acting shenanigans during that production.  Gaga’s interviews about needing “a psychiatric nurse” on-set because of how far she pushed herself in her portrayal of Patrizia Gucci—or how the real-life Patrizia put a real-life curse on her as retribution for that portrayal—filled the exact role that reports of Leto’s method-acting pranks usually fill: they’re way more interesting & fun to talk about than anything she accomplishes onscreen.  Meanwhile, every single time Leto appears in his fat suit & bald cap combo as Paolo Gucci is a pure delight.  He looks ridiculous, and his personality matches, playing Paolo as an overgrown Pinocchio with a wonderfully tacky fashion sense.  I’ve never been so excited to see Jared Leto appear onscreen, knowing that every single line-delivery was going to be an absolute howler.  And yet there was no significant tabloid baggage that came with the performance besides an off-hand joke(?) about “snorting arrabbiata sauce” and having “olive oil for blood” while immersed in the role.  Gaga hogged up all the method-acting spotlight this go-round, and Leto was—against all odds—simply fun to watch.

I do not want to get into the business of becoming a Jared Leto apologist, so thank The Dark Lord for Morbius.  There was something weirdly comforting about seeing Leto return to his same old tedious self in his very next role after House of Gucci.  He is completely anonymous as Doctor Michael Morbius, the vampire superhero, delivering a lead performance just as forgettable as his fleeting appearances in movies he’s barely in.  His line-deliveries are so flat & inflectionless that you cannot distinguish when he’s telling a joke.  His only detectable facial expressions are computer-generated, signaling the emergence of an entertaining monster that the self-conflicted Morbius fights to contain under his boring, placid surface.  The only brief moment when it’s apparent what Leto brings to the role is a scene where he appears buff & shirtless, enjoying his new vampire-bat superstrength before quickly covering up, lest the audience actually gets excited about something.  He looks phenomenal for a 50-year-old, but there’s nothing else about his screen presence that could possibly impress an audience – mostly because the audience is snoring in their seats by the second act.

It’s not enough for Leto to be a bore.  For him to truly be back on his bullshit, he needs to be a bore and a nuisance, making it unnecessarily difficult for his collaborators to record his trademark tedium on film.  That’s why it’s a blessing to see Morbius director Daniel Espinosa confirm reports that Leto frequently derailed production with 45-minute bathroom breaks, remaining in-character as a physically disabled man (pre-vampire powers) between takes.  Interviewer Mike Ryan prompted Espinosa with the anecdote, “Someone told me that Jared Leto was so committed to playing Michael Morbius that even when he had to go to the bathroom, he would use his crutches and slowly limp to get to the bathroom.  But it was taking so long between for pee breaks, that a deal was made with him to get him a wheelchair so someone could wheel him there quicker and he agreed to that.”  Espinosa confirmed, “Yeah. Because I think what Jared thinks, what Jared believes, is that somehow the pain of those movements, even when he was playing normal Michael Morbius, he needed, because he’s been having this pain his whole life.”  That is the exact level of off-screen bullshit we expect from Leto: going out of his way to inconvenience his coworkers so he can deliver a flavorless, textureless performance of no consequence.  Everything is in its rightful place again; order has been restored.

Of course, not everyone is not going to agree that Leto’s affable performance in House of Gucci is superior to his dreary return-to-form in Morbius.  In fact, The Hollywood Reporter headlined its Morbius review with the blurb, “After his bizarrely cartoonish turn in ‘House of Gucci’, it’s a relief to see Jared Leto channel his lust for transformative characters into a film that’s quite literally written into the role’s DNA,” a line that was apparently written to troll me, specifically.  Some people are just determined to not have fun, and there is no hope for them.  At least we can all agree that House of Gucci was a fluke, a one-of-a-kind miracle where a Jared Leto performance was worthier of discussion than the backstage circumstances of its production.  And so Morbius was a much-needed cooldown & career re-set, so that we don’t get too excited about seeing another fun, “bizarrely cartoonish turn” from him.  Leto giveth, and Leto taketh away.

-Brandon Ledet

2 thoughts on “Leto Giveth, Leto Taketh Away

  1. Pingback: Lagniappe Podcast: Cronos (1993) | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Keep On Morbin in the Free World | Swampflix

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