John C. Reilly, the pathetic slob. John C. Reilly, the dramatic, restrained thespian. No matter how you spin it, there’s no forgetting an essential John C. Reilly performance. The man can be balls-out hilarious, subtly amusing, or go-for-broke melodramatic.
Paul Thomas Anderson has called him the funniest man alive, while other auteurs have capitalized on his sense of control. An actor's ability to shift from comedy to drama from role to role (or within a single performance) is an art that is growing increasingly more difficult. But looking back, it’s a skill that Reilly has never not had. Here are a few cases in point.
Five Essential Roles
Hard Eight aka Sydney (1996)
In Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film Hard Eight, or Sydney, as the director prefers it be called, Reilly plays a down and out loser who is discovered in a diner by Sydney (Philip Baker Hall), an aging hustler who instantly pities John. Old Sydney helps his new protégée along, teaching him how to make good on a hustle. And after their first night of teaching and learning, a fast friendship is forged.
Two years later, John has made a name for himself as a low level hustler, which of course lends itself to a host of problems that Sydney is forced to clean up. As John, Reilly gives an early glimpse at some of the character traits he would come to best be known by. Because really, who plays desperate, pathetic, lonely and exhausted better than John C. Reilly?
To be clear, Hard Eight is definitely Philip Baker Hall’s show, but it is clear evidence as to the distressed innocence that has stuck with Reilly throughout his career.
Boogie Nights (1997)
In his director’s commentary on the Boogie Nights DVD, Paul Thomas Anderson says that John C. Reilly is the funniest person he knows, and that casting him as Dirk Diggler’s impromptu sidekick was a no brainer. How right he is.
Everything that comes out of Reed Rothchild’s mouth is pure gold. But Reilly’s performance here really hits its peak when Dirk is spinning out of control. Watch, for instance, when Dirk is listening to his shitty demo (“YOU GOT THE POOOWWWEEER! YEAH!”) and he ponders aloud if the levels need to be tweeked a bit. The brilliance of the scene is Reilly shaking his head in agreement in the background. And later, when Dirk and Reed argue for the rights to their record, well, shit, movie scenes just don’t get more desperately hilarious than that.
The Good Girl (2002)
Taking a slight detour into dim-witted melancholy, Reilly portrays a lazy, stoned-out Phil in Miguel Arteta’s underrated The Good Girl. Phil is a useless schlub married to someone way out of his league. So when his wife, Justine (Jennifer Aniston) begins to step out on him, Phil doesn’t even pretend to notice, let alone give a shit.
Despite a role in which Reilly is given seemingly nothing to do except act high while sitting on a couch, his Good Girl performance is laced with a few magnificent scenes. The first, in which Reilly asks his wife if he can hold her (covered) breast while he masturbates into a cup, is perfect in that John C. Reilly way, the second, however, is a little darker. There’s an extended scene in which Phil finally realizes the full extent of his wife’s indiscretions. In that moment, Reilly is given an all too rare chance to fully flex his dramatic skill. The result is, as it were, perfectly un-Reilly.
Essentially adopting the role Philip Baker Hall played in Hard Eight, Reilly’s Richard Gaddis is a low level pusher who takes a young, desperate con artist under his wing. We’ve all seen this before – the seasoned con man teaching the new guy the ropes – but if it is done well, then I never grow tired of watching it. Richard is smooth and precise without having the slightest clue how in over his head he is, and Reilly plays him perfectly.
Look, Criminal is nothing exceptional, there are no game-changing cons going on by any means. But with that in mind, the movie is fun, breezy, and perfectly paced via Gregory Jacob’s restrained direction and Steven Soderbergh’s terse script. But really, the credit goes to Reilly, who owns up to his leading man status with smooth, confident bravdo.
After their son is hit in the face by another boy, Michael and Penelope (Reilly and Jodie Foster) invite the attacker’s parents, Nancy and Alan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) to their posh New York condo to hash things out respectfully. But, this being a Roman Polanski farce, respect is pretty much the exact opposite of what happens.
Within minutes, everyone involved is in a pissing contest with everyone else, resulting in plenty of exhaustive, witty banter. In all honesty, it’s pretty difficult to pick a best performance out of the four, but anyway you look at it, Reilly’s reserved-to-expressive Michael is some of the best, most layered work he’s done.
The Best of the Best
Officer Jim Kurring
So, really, there are two main sides to John C. Reilly: the pathetic loser humorously out of his element, or the down and out loner. Both have lent themselves to a variety of noteworthy performances, but no role has better demonstrated both of those qualities more harmoniously than Jim Kurring.
From the moment we meet Officer Kurring, via a hilariously sincere dating service phone message, we immediately pity the fool. Don’t get me wrong, Kurring is as genuine as they come – a die hard romantic who’s better at playing cop than actually being one. In short, he wants nothing more than to do it right, problem is, he just can’t seem to catch a break.
For instance, there’s a brief scene where Kurring is searching for a suspicious looking man outside in the pouring rain. As a result of it being dark and cold and wet, Kurring accidentally slips and slides down the hill, losing his gun in the process. While he’s on the ground searching, he cries aloud to himself, “Find the gun, Jim! Find the gun!” It’s a simple moment, but one that sums up Reilly’s performance perfectly.
And believe me, there’s more. Kurring’s idle speech about what it means to be a cop, his interactions with the desperate Claudia, his reaction to drinking a stale cup of coffee – like the best of Reilly’s roles, Officer Kurring, evolves the more you watch him.
Other Notable Roles
Casualties of War (1989)
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
The River Wild (1994)
The Thin Red Line (1998)
For Love of the Game (1999)
The Anniversary Party (2001)
Gangs of New York (2002)
The Hours (2002)
The Aviator (2004)
A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
Cedar Rapids (2011)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Big thanks to Jandy at The Frame for recommending I cover Reilly for In Character. If you have someone you'd like to see me feature, feel free to let me know!
William H. Macy