Justin Timberlake should be on top of the world right now. The former boy-bander is the biggest pop star in the universe; Timberlake has a new album out and two songs in the Top 20 on Billboard, his Jay-Z collaboration (“Holy Grail”) and “Mirrors,” a track that insiders are expecting to clean up when the Grammys are announced. When you see him strut across the stage like Michael Jackson or make hosting SNL look so easy, you would think he could do anything. Justin Timberlake could probably sing my clothes off right now through sheer sexual charisma. However, the man still can’t open a movie.
While Gravity had the universe in its pull this weekend, Timberlake’s Runner Runner quietly bombed, taking in just 7.7 million. This is less than half of Gravity made in its opening day. Despite receiving heavy promotion from Fox, the trailer failed to catch on with audiences, generating little buzz (even with seemingly A-list stars attached) and the movie was universally ripped apart by critics. Runner Runner scored a dismal 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, reviews so bad the marketing department had to make up its own endorsements in the previews ouch.
All of this led to one of the worst opening weekends ever for a movie of Runner Runner’s stature, which you could just chalk up to it not being very good, had it starred anyone else. However, since 2010, Timberlake has acted in ten movies, only one of them crossing $100 million, the benchmark of industry success. That was Bad Teacher, a surprise mid-level hit that launched Cameron Diaz’s comeback. Timberlake had a small role, and I barely remember him being in it. Yogi Bear underperformed its too-high expectations in 2010, which Timberlake lent his voice to, and his only blockbuster success was voice acting in 2007’s Shrek the Third.
Even though he’s in more movies a year than most actors are in three, Timberlake’s young career is already riddled with flops. He started out with Southland Tales, one of the least liked movies in the history of the Cannes Film Festival, and Mike Myers’ The Love Guru, which won Worst Picture, and his biggest successes thus far have been not as a star but as part of an ensemble team. The gritty Alpha Dog may have underperformed, but it allowed his co-stars to do most of the dramatic lifting, playing a small but key role tailor-made for his charm and effortless magnetism. Like Hilary Swank, he’s not a chameleon, and he’s best when he doesn’t blend. He naturally stands out.
Saturday Night Live proves that Justin Timberlake is best when he has an Altmanesque phantasmagoria of other performers to bounce off, and he even got his start as being part of a team — in NSYNC. Timberlake shines when he can boost everyone around him, and he might not have gotten recognition for his great performance in The Social Network, but Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield got awards nominations playing opposite him. While Armie Hammer was routinely snubbed in a dual role, he’s quietly becoming a big star, as long as he’s never in The Lone Ranger again.
However, Timberlake’s other ensemble movie equally illustrates the problems with his career. Justin Timberlake will also be acting in Inside Llewyn Davis, the much anticipated Coen Brothers movie about the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1960’s. Although Timberlake’s vocal talents make him an easy candidate for the lead, a musician trying to make his name in the business, the Coens wisely gave the part to Oscar Issac, the Drive actor as yet untested as a lead vocalist or a leading man. Before watching the haunting trailer, who even knew he could sing?
Instead the Coens cast Timberlake as one of Llewyn Davis’ band mates, in a part that never asks us to momentarily forget that he’s Justin Timberlake. Timberlake’s star persona is so ingrained into how we understand him as a celebrity that it’s impossible to dissociate his public image from his acting. This is why you’ll never see Lady Gaga in a Terrence Malick film, simply because we couldn’t believe her as anyone else. Instead, Robert Rodriguez wisely stunt casted her in Machete Kills and Sin City 2, where the entire joke is that she’s Lady Gaga. After watching Tom Cruise attempt to play a Nazi, Rodriguez knows better than to try to suspend our disbelief.
When Timberlake is killing it on SNL, he’s able to do it not as an actor — but as a performer. Digital shorts like “D**k in a Box” and “Motherlover” act as signifiers for what we already think of Justin Timberlake — the talented, charming multi-hyphenate — rather than forcing us to rethink his celebrity. Timberlake has often credited Will Smith as an inspiration in his re-branding, but the problem is that Will Smith (like Jennifer Lopez) has been an actor all along. America got to know him as a rapper-actor — but even Smith had to choose between his talents. Can you remember the last time he came out with an album? Me neither.
Timberlake isn’t the first star who’s had difficulty straddling acting and singing (see: Scarlett Johansson). However, he could learn a lesson from his Runner Runner co-star, Ben Affleck. After years in the Hollywood garbage pile, Affleck made his name on making smart, crackerjack thrillers, directing a whole lot better than he ever acted. The Town and Gone Baby Gone were surprise critical hits, and Argo was a commercial smash that won Best Picture. Affleck acted in two of them, but he was everyone’s least favorite part of his own movie. Ben Affleck as a Latino spy? Bitch, please.
When rumors spread that Ben Affleck would helm a Justice League movie, the fan cheers were deafening, as Affleck could bring the technical mastery to give the long gestating project the same gravitas as the recent Avengers movie. The problem was that he got hired by the Batman-Superman project instead — as an actor. Just as quickly as Affleck the director was embraced, Affleck the actor was rightfully denounced. In his two decades as an actor, Ben Affleck has his own share of disasters to his name (Gigli, Paycheck) and he’s been dramatically outshined even in his critical successes, as in the cases of Chasing Amy and Good Will Hunting.
Interestingly though, Affleck has one shining moment as a thespian: 2008’s Hollywoodland, starring alongside Diane Lane and Adrien Brody. Ben Affleck was Golden Globe nominated for his work playing the man who played Superman — George Reeves. The film works as a commentary on Affleck’s then fallen career, one that mirrored the actor he was playing. We’re hyper-aware that it’s Ben Affleck in the role, and like Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, that makes it more effective and bruising. It’s so close to the bone it hurts. Affleck can’t play anyone else and this time, he didn’t have to. Ben Affleck plays Ben Affleck just fine.
However, Affleck has yet to learn from his mistakes, as the Batman backlash proves. Like Madonna, Ben Affleck seems determined to succeed in the one medium in which no one wants to see him perform — and it’s hurting his career. However, Timberlake is young and still has time to correct his mishaps. Justin Timberlake has become wildly successful not for playing other people but being a famous pop star, the hot guy it seems like you could be friends with. No one needs Justin Timberlake to do everything. We only want that Justin Timberlake to be himself. That’s why we love him.
It’s just time that Justin Timberlake accepts that. Like the Runner Runner poster suggests, he needs to know when to walk away.