When I think about Ryan Reynolds, I think about a line delivered to Reynold’s character by Anna Faris in the gross-out restaurant comedy Waiting… “I realized that your personality was just one short punctuated joke after another,” she says. This one line, delivered in 2005 when Reynolds was not yet 30, still comes dangerously close to summing up his entire schtick.
And yet, Reynolds has always been a savant when it comes to one-liners. He uses his high-pitch, breathy upward inflection to turn every sentence into a satirical question or a taunting jab. He rode the comedic wave of 2002’s Van Wilder for his official Hollywood arrival. His chiseled features and traditional leading man good looks remain at odds with the contemporary idea of what a funny man should look like.
Then there’s the argument that Reynolds, despite A-list status and high-profile tabloid romances, is not a standard Movie Star, at least in the pre-2000s sense of the term. Recognizable superhero brands like Green Lantern, traditionally safe family friendly animated fare like Turbo, and high-concept action like R.I.P.D. all flopped for Reynolds. The massively successful Deadpool franchise provided the star with a much-needed blue chip victory at a time when his reputation arguably preceded him.
Too attractive for comedy and too funny for action, Reynolds’s specific brand of endearingly smarmy charisma has nevertheless proven enduring. He’s the type of performer that can effortlessly make an asshole likable, as he’s done in Van Wilder, Waiting… and Deadpool, or give a nice guy an edge, as he does in this weekend’s surprisingly kind-hearted and funny video game feature Free Guy. Reynolds has parlayed the meta-nature of many of his films into a half-decade of impeccable marketing and self-branding that forces us to reevaluate his place in the Hollywood hierarchy.
There’s always been more depth to Reynolds than we give him credit for. We see it when his characters realize the all-encompassing corruption of the institutions they place their faith in (Smokin’ Aces), reckon with the self-sabotage they can’t help but indulge (Adventureland, Mississippi Grind), or carry a claustrophobic chamber piece (Buried). The results are always mixed when an actor ventures outside of their comfort zone and Reynolds is no exception. But outliers on his resume such as the 2015 legal drama Woman in Gold show off a more restrained version of his on-screen persona. It’s not that he doesn’t know how to modulate his manic energy, it’s that he’s rarely asked to.
There’s an element of self-loathing that permeates his characters that becomes obscured by the live wire zingers they subsist on. It twists the humor into something more honest, which is what gives his commercial products like Just Friends, Definitely Maybe and The Proposal a layer of curiosity. These are unhappy and flawed men searching for something that makes them feel whole. They aren’t redefining the romcom genre like Annie Hall, but they work because Reynolds can manufacture chemistry like Walter White.
Good acting is just about making an on-screen moment feel believable by understanding the surrounding context and fitting that into the larger narrative of the film. He’ll never be confused with Daniel Day-Lewis, but he always seems to at least “understand the assignment,” as the kids these days say.
Reynolds has dabbled in comedy and action, often combining the two. He’s dipped a toe into horror and dove headfirst into romantic comedies. He’s tried his hand at blockbuster franchise IP, with paradigm shifting success and punchline-worthy failures. He’s always been open to original concepts. His characters flit between blissful innocence and cutting wit. Through it all, Reynolds’ innate likability has endured. While he may never be the Movie Star Hollywood yearns for, his foul-mouthed hi-jinx or coffee-and-cigarette malaise is rarely uninteresting on screen. That’s enough for us.