By Kat Murphy
Special to MSN Movies
Back in 1995, when "Friends" was the hottest thing on TV, Jennifer Aniston's layered hairstyle, popularly dubbed The Rachel, earned her the title of "America's First Hairdo" from Rolling Stone magazine. Scant months ago, headlines megaphoned "Jennifer Aniston Chops Off Her Hair!" and "Aniston Gets a Big Girl Haircut!" Now that's a 16-year career arc to die for. No wonder one reviewer snarked that "The Bounty Hunter," Golden Girl's most recent dud, starred Jennifer Aniston's hair and Gerard Butler's scowl.
Don't get me wrong: There's no way I'm hatin' on America's sweetheart, every red-blooded guy's favorite girl-next-door. Starring in rom-coms, guesting on talk shows, Jen shines as a perfect Banana Republic princess: sleek, buffed, tanned, ready for wholesome fun. A good sport — even when "The Bounty Hunter" won a Razzie for worst film of 2010 — Aniston encourages us to believe she doesn't take the role of movie star very seriously, and isn't that a good thing?
Maybe not. Aniston's narrow range and repetitive business, the way she pretty much skates through idiotic rom-com after rom-com, has come to tax my patience. I know, her fans don't mind, and a surprising number of film critics seem so bemused by Jen's charm that they totally skirt the issue of her apparent lack of big-screen talent. Could be she's still benefiting from a sympathy vote garnered when the all-American good girl, like Debbie Reynolds before her, got humiliated by a rapacious sex goddess.
Movie-wise, Aniston has pretty much always been The Rachel. (An exception is 2002's "The Good Girl," in which her sweet affect masked the soul of a stone-cold sociopath.) Over the years, as cinematic forays into richer, larger personalities failed to please — her attempt to play a "Derailed" femme fatale was panned as "calamitous miscasting" — Aniston's polished her winsome Central Perk persona to a fine sheen. For my money, the shtick has become increasingly knee-jerk. Her limited comedic repertoire worked in the small-screen sitcom context of "Friends," but in the movies it's gotten old fast, at least for anyone hoping for some contemporary equivalent of the comedic largesse of Katharine Hepburn and Carole Lombard.
Aniston's best performance in recent years? Her current ad for SmartWater, a spoof titled "Jennifer's Sex Tape" that showcases the actress's best moves as she deals with a herd of puppies, a mocking parrot ("Rachel, I love your hair!"), dirty-dancing babies, and then segues into a steamy vamp to the wailing sax sounds of "Baker Street," which she flubs ... adorably. Don't look for that pizzazz in long-form comedies like "The Bounty Hunter" and "Just Go with It." Her comic timing mostly consists of standing pat while others act out, work to pitch the funny; then she deploys her patented deadpans and double takes, lasering the first banana's antics to dust. Where's the mutual pitch-and-catch, the good-looking lady's robust participation in sparking hilarity?
When a Gerard Butler or Adam Sandler says or does something outrageous, Aniston cocks an eyebrow or a hip, stares down her moronic co-star and delivers what's becoming a trademark belittling response: "Really?" She means to be button cute when she flashes her familiar glazed expression, so effective in making a joke or the pratfall funnier than it would have been — on TV.
Even "The Break-up" wouldn't have nailed so many genuinely funny targets without Vince Vaughn doing the heavy lifting. As a friend once cracked wise-and-true, "There is no such thing as a Jennifer Aniston movie — it's always somebody else and Jennifer Aniston." Unable to carry a film on her own, she requires a larger comedic presence, an actor willing and able to give her, and the audience, something big and crazy to react to. Tell the truth: A couple hours after watching one of her rom-coms can you really recall any fall-down-funny or big dramatic moments in an Aniston performance? Face it, folks, there's no there there.
No one can deny that the camera grooves on the flawless planes of this pretty woman's face, her neon-blue eyes, the promise of intelligence and empathy. In movie after movie, Aniston deliberately projects such clarity of expression (when her hair isn't in her eyes), you're sure that something dramatically meaningful or comedically sharp is about to happen. But it's just a tease. Enough that she should give you The Look. Soul and substance are beyond her grasp, perhaps forever.
So I say shut down The Rachel's rom-com factory, buy her a one-way ticket to "Cougar Town," and start scouting for fresh talent ... like "SNL"'s edgy Kristen Wiig!