What if I said that Vince Vaughn hasn’t been funny in a movie—much less an honest-to-goodness, laugh-out-loud riot—in a decade? And that he hasn’t made a legitimately good movie in that timespan either?
Despite the apparent VOD-grade quality of his latest, the limited-release thriller Term Life—presently most notable for a poster in which he sports some terrifically terrible hair—such pronouncements would probably sound at least slightly hyperbolic, especially since the 46-year-old is one of Hollywood’s most popular comedic actors. A man whose physically intimidating stature (he stands a robust 6-foot-5) lends his wise-ass attitude some menace, Vaughn has made a lucrative career out of playing motormouths who are a little bit cocky, a little bit condescending, and very sarcastic. From his breakout turn in 1995’s Swingers (written by, and co-starring, longtime pal Jon Favreau) to his memorable work in Old School and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Vaughn has exhibited a gift for embodying arrogant insult artists with a penchant for profane gab.
And yet the fact remains that, for the past ten years, the star has—at least creatively speaking—lost his way.
The veritable Year of Vince Vaughn came in 2005, courtesy of his co-headlining turn in Wedding Crashers ($209 domestic gross) and scene-stealing support in Mr. and Mrs. Smith ($186 gross)—still his two biggest non-Jurassic Park: The Lost World box-office hits. The former, in particular, cemented Vaughn’s rep as the crown prince of cutting one-liners and smarmy, know-it-all cool. In the process, it confirmed that the actor had regained his mojo after a post-Swingers detour toward darker dramatic roles—most notoriously 1998’s shot-for-shot Psycho remake in which he played Norman Bates, and the John Travolta thriller Domestic Disturbance. A massive bar brawl erupted during filming of the latter, leaving co-star Steve Buscemi with several life-threatening stab wounds and Vaughn maced, arrested, and the recipient of an unfortunate mugshot.
Since those two ‘05 efforts propelled him back to the comedy A-list, however, it’s been downhill sledding for Vaughn.
While The Break-Up proved a genuine (if uneven) stab at anti-rom-com dramedy, the rest of Vaughn’s recent output, even when profitable, has alternated between mediocre (Fred Claus, Unfinished Business) and downright atrocious (Four Christmases, Couples Retreat, The Dilemma, The Watch). This trend peaked—or, rather, bottomed-out—in 2013, when Vaughn delivered two of his worst films to date. Though it reteamed him with Wedding Crashers running mate Owen Wilson, The Internship was a bleak feature-length commercial for Google, with some halfhearted bad-boy nonsense thrown in for colorful measure. And Delivery Man, in which sperm-donating Vaughn discovers he’s the father of 533 children, was equally dismal, shoehorning its lead into a clunky, mushy parental-responsibility melodrama.
With his comedic vehicles repeatedly stalling, it’s no wonder Vaughn opted to switch gears in 2015 by taking an against-type role as a ruthless criminal in the second season of HBO’s True Detective. A poised, pitiless crook desperate to pull himself out of the underworld and into the legitimate capitalist mainstream through a California rail project, Vaughn’s Frank Semyon was a departure from his absurd Old School and Wedding Crashers protagonists, and a return to the type of villains he’d embodied at the turn of the millennium. Considering the hype surrounding the show (following its water cooler-dominating, “McConaissance”-instigating first season), it appeared, on the face of it, like an ideal platform for a Vaughn makeover, one that would afford him an opportunity to explore the more threatening aspects of his cocky big-screen persona under the stewardship of an auteurist creative voice (namely, True Detective showrunner/writer Nic Pizzolatto).
Suffice it to say, things didn’t turn out as planned.
True Detective’s sophomore go-round was widely panned and unloved. And though Vaughn sometimes tapped into a compellingly ugly vein—as when Frank beats a man silly for challenging his authority—he too often seemed to be pantomiming, rather than fully inhabiting, a noir tough guy thanks in no small part to Pizzolatto’s habit of stuffing his mouth with cartoonishly florid dialogue and overblown monologues. Yet, undeterred by the show’s reception, Vaughn is now committed to further indulging his more dramatic side, not only with the goofy-looking Term Life, but via upcoming parts in The Archbishop and the Antichrist (playing a murderer opposite Forest Whitaker’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu), Hacksaw Ridge (a WWII drama directed by Mel Gibson), and the prison-riot drama Brawl in Cell Block 99 (from Bone Tomahawk director S. Craig Zahler).
The last of those feels most promising, because it again suggests (after True Detective) Vaughn’s desire to work with idiosyncratic artists intent on utilizing him in unconventional ways. Nonetheless, when he previously attempted that auteurist-inclined tack—with Gus Van Sant and Psycho, and Tarsem and The Cell—the results were decidedly underwhelming. And it’s easy to imagine the same fate befalling these future dramatic projects as well, simply because he’s far less interesting when toning down his more outrageous instincts. In a manner similar to many fellow comedians (Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, the late Robin Williams), Vaughn became a star precisely because of his distinctive, outsized wild-man disposition. As evidenced by his cock-of-the-walk “You’re so money” bluster from Swingers, or the “just-the-tip” bit from Wedding Crashers, or the recurring “earmuffs” gag from Old School, he’s most in his element when he’s the lewd, gregarious, sardonic center of a ridiculous situation’s attention.
Which isn’t to say that Vaughn should go back to making the formulaic funnyman dreck of his recent past. Rather, it’s to argue that his stardom is predicated on his natural ability to amuse, and as such he should embrace that fact, while nonetheless also continuing to shrewdly pair himself with exceptional directors—a Jody Hill (Eastbound and Down), Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel) or even Adam McKay (who worked with Vaughn on Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) would seem to be inspired artists capable of providing Vaughn with a unique outlet for his humorous impulses.
No doubt Vaughn has it in him to mount a career reinvention. But as with his character in Term Life (who’s been given mere weeks to live), the clock is ticking.