I never engaged much with the Harry Potter movies as they rolled out throughout the aughts, but from what I remember glimpsing in Dear Reader, Wizard People, Daniel Radcliffe was not an especially talented child actor. I couldn’t hear Radcliffe’s pipsqueak line-readings over the drunken growls of Brad Neely’s alternate narration track, but I distinctly remember him having a dazed, deer-in-headlights look in Wizard People that suggested even he didn’t know why he was helming the blockbuster franchise. It’s incredible, then, that Radcliffe was able to turn that early windfall into what’s now a decades-running acting career instead of just a passive, eternal source of royalty checks. What’s even more incredible is just how weird he’s committed to making that career. Radcliffe continually chooses projects where he gets to play absolute freaks: Dr. Frankenstein’s groveling hunchback lab assistant (and possible boyfriend), a computer nerd with guns surgically bolted to his hands, a farting corpse with a magical boner, any role he can land to distance himself from his association with Harry Potter – efforts I am cruelly undermining here. Much like the kids who headlined the Twilight series, Radcliffe has put his blockbuster blood money to great use in the years since he broke free. Only, while RPat & KStew are chasing high-brow critical prestige, Radcliffe is out there determined to be seen as the biggest weirdo to grace the screen since Nic Cage screeched about the bees. It’s been a truly magical transformation.
Radcliffe’s determination to let his freak flag fly recently reached its highest fever pitch in the Funny or Die sketch turned Roku Channel Original Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Weird is a mock biopic that sensationalizes the notoriously squeaky-clean polka musician Weird Al’s life to match the more traditional rock ‘n roll hedonism of his MTV-era colleagues, complete with Dr. Demento scouting talent at the local biker bar and Al’s father forbidding him to play “the devil’s squeezebox.” It’s a single-joke premise that might feel a little redundant for anyone who’s already seen similar music industry parodies like Walk Hard & Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, but its single joke is still—importantly—very funny. Weird is the kind of comedy nerd’s comedy where every character introduction has you muttering “Oh, that’s good casting” under your breath. It’s Radcliffe’s casting that really makes the film special, though. As much as the purpose of Weird is to contextualize Al Yankovic as an essential American pop culture icon—alongside fellow greats like Madonna, Elvira, Pee-wee, and Divine—it also completes the mission of contextualizing Daniel Radcliffe as a true weirdo himself (although a Brit). Radcliffe commits to the bit with full fervor, playing the raw, scuzzy, self-destructive sexuality of Weird Al as if he were starring in an Iggy Pop biopic instead, strengthening the over-the-top absurdism of the film’s only joke by playing it with a straight face unseen in the genre since Leslie Nielsen passed. Radcliffe has played much weirder characters than Al in the past—the titular Swiss Army Man chief among them—but I’m not sure he’s ever done so more convincingly.
Things weren’t always this way. A decade before The Al Yankovic Story, Radcliffe’s career appeared to be taking a much more pedestrian leading-man path, starting with the 2012 adaptation of The Woman in Black. A comeback production for the legendary Gothic horror studio Hammer, The Woman in Black is super scary, both as a traditional ghost story and as a worst-case-scenario vision of Radcliffe’s potential career as a bland leading man instead of an eccentric weirdo millionaire. Both Hammer and Radcliffe had a lot to prove in the otherwise low-stakes, low-profile production, and only Hammer scored high in that gamble. In its story of a vengeful ghost who targets rural village children, Hammer was able to prove they were ready to produce well-balanced, traditionalist ghost stories again – offering a mix of shameless jump scares and long stretches of atmospheric quiet where all of the spookery lingers in backgrounds, mirrors, and mist. It’s not an especially shocking nor inventive horror film, but it is an efficient & effective one, where every adaptive choice helps amplify its eerie scares . . . except for Radcliffe’s casting as the lead. Much like in the early Harry Potter films, Radcliffe is just kinda there. He’d be easily replaceable as the film’s lead if it weren’t for his box-office draw as a recognizable name on the poster, which would only lead to diminishing returns if his career continued down that path (especially as the Harry Potter franchise sunk further into the toxic muck of TERFdom). The Woman in Black was marketed as Radcliffe’s debut as a serious adult actor, a legitimate talent with real staying power beyond the franchise that made him famous as a tyke. Instead, he comes across as just some guy, totally replaceable by any number of BBC repertory players.
The curious thing here is that The Woman in Black is a much better movie than Weird; it’s just not a better Daniel Radcliffe Movie. I would much rather live in a world where Radcliffe is a walking, talking Nic Cagian meme than one where he’s a competent but unnoticeable leading man. Looking back at the ten years between The Woman in Black and Weird, it appears that Radcliffe also wants to live in that world. He’s a genuine weirdo, and I think that’s beautiful.