Stoner comedy American Ultra lands in theaters this week. To coincide with its release, now is as good a time as any to assess and evaluate the careers of its two leads, Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, through careful critique. Instead, we’re going to toss the pair into the proverbial ring, and watch them duke it out vicariously through our sensical, considered arguments.
For this to be a fair fight there needs to be equal footing - we’re not ogres. After a brief scour of IMDB, it appears both contenders are roughly at the same stage in their careers - she has 43 credits listed, he 37 - with most of those roles landing squarely in the same wheelhouse. In addition to their similar career trajectories, they share another commonality of being simultaneously loathed and adored by the masses. It’s like they’re the same actor. Even the film’s marketing team is targeting their apparently interchangeable personas:
Gem: When it comes to an artist’s value in the public sphere, is it easier to turn to their last critically-acclaimed performance to form an opinion? Or to flip a few pages of a glossy tabloid? For Kristen Stewart’s throngs of fans, those former Twi-hards turned K-Stew loyalists, it’s a bit of both. The result? A public persona that’s a messy amalgam of her early soul-sucking YA franchise performances and her paparazzi brawls. Yes, she once played Bella Swan to gloomy, sullen perfection with such conviction that it was as if she were that gloomy and sullen. She might have been. She might still be. Does it matter when beneath it all lies an actor steadily collecting kudos?
Sean: Wait, wait, I thought you were pro-Stewart here? Soul-sucking YA performances? Paparazzi brawls? A gloomy and sullen personality? I don’t see much to brag about if this is what we’re going with from K-Stew.
Yes, Jesse Eisenberg also has a notorious, almost exceedingly gloomy and sullen personality — his recent Comic-Con comparison to a genocide is the far extreme of that — but I think he’s far and above Stewart for steadily collecting kudos. I first remember him from Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, and since then he’s carved out a perfect niche for himself of neurotic but slightly comedic roles that vary from high concept comedies to low budget auteur-driven fare.
As for Stewart, it almost seems like people are forcibly hunting to push praise on her not because she’s earned it, but because she’s managed to find out a way to be in movies without having the talent to get her there.
I don’t necessarily think fans like K-Stew’s who are voracious to the point of insanity is a proper gauge of talent. If that were the case the world would be run by One Direction fans battling the Taylor Swift empire or something with little Robert Pattinson factions split amongst them.
Either way, Eisenberg’s got the talent, what does K-Stew have besides a wide smattering of faint praise for a couple of non-Twilight movies?
Gem: A-ha, my dear cohort, I was merely establishing the harsh critiques of K-Stew’s public image — a “before and after” snapshot, if you will. Because it’s impossible to defend Twilight or her performance within it. So I won’t. In fact, if this were taking place at the height of Twilightery I’d roll over and admit defeat. The sole reason K-Stew’s recent ascent is of interest and deserves recognition stems from those questionable choices early on. She’s done a Dufresne — swam through a river of shit and come out clean on the other side. She overcame a career crisis. It was never that she lacked the talent — she lacked decent material. Her work after Twilight has led to more than just a smattering of faint praise. Stewart is the only American recipient of the prestigious French Cesar Award for Best Supporting Actress. Those guys don’t dish out their awards with the half-arsed consideration of the Academy. They mean business.
So Eisenberg’s second-rate Woody Allen shuffles scored him indie opportunities at the start of his career, but has he really landed juicier, wide-ranging parts? His neurotic and comedic schtick remains the same across every single movie. Even as The Social Network’s jibbering douche Mark Zuckerberg, it never feels like we’re actually watching the character, just a variation on a theme. The wee slips of him in Batman V Superman footage, the same. Let’s face it: he’s just not got the range.
Sean: She overcame a career crisis to do what, exactly? I like her and Eisenberg’s first collabo, Adventureland, as much as the next person, but that happened just after Twilight broke. After that it’s just a whole lot of nothing.
Snow White and the Huntsman is known more because of her extra-curricular activities than anything else, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone outside of Sundance film critics touting Camp X-Ray as anything but passable. Then in Still Alice she just plays second fiddle to Julianne Moore, a.k.a. the best actress alive who isn’t named Juliette Binoche.
But wait. Second fiddle? Juliette Binoche? Before I’m drowned out by the K-Stew army for not mentioning it, we have to talk about director Olivier Assayas’ film Clouds of Sils Maria, which I thought was a pretty swell movie. Yes, Stewart may have gotten a Cesar Award, but as a Brit you of all people should know that France is hardly the arbiter of quality and good taste let alone big bureaucratic awards ceremonies.
I can see the awards committee now: “A beeg Hollywood star? In a moovee by un directeur français? Sacrebleu! We must geev her zee award maintenant!” It was simply a self-serving moment to make it seem like the Cesar Awards really mattered when, just like most awards, they don’t matter at all. Can you name who won the Cesar for Best Supporting Actress last year or the year before that? Can anyone even name what won Best Film?
But if we are going to take awards as a sign of skill and overall worth as a human being, Eisenberg seemed to have found the platonic ideal with his turn in The Social Network. I will admit many of Eisenberg’s roles are variations on a theme, but people don’t fault acting titans like Jack Nicholson from basically giving slightly different versions of the same performance.
So tell me, where is K. Stew’s Social Network?
Gem: To overcome what? Unlike Eisenberg, whose only skirmishes with the press were self-induced, K-Stew has had to fight tooth and nail against the hideous blowback (pun intended) of her liaise with Rupert Sanders. If he’s had any on-set trailer romps, they’ve remained private. Hers, in the midst of trying to accomplish anything other than Bella fucking Swan, were splashed all over the papers. That demented fanbase gripped onto that whole incident and dragged it out even longer, whilst furiously wanking at the thought of finally shagging R-Pattz.
You say Camp X-Ray hasn’t found appreciators outside of the Sundance lot. It’s currently riding a solid RT score, which is a massive turnaround from K-Stew’s previous film. Her wet-behind-the-ears Army runt is a terrific turn. She submits to a film that other actresses would likely steer clear of: She undergoes humiliation and vitriol and makes you actually care about her character’s feelings.
And part of what made Clouds Of Sils Maria so spectacular was that unfortunate press-hounding period in her life. She channelled it all into Valentin. The role granted her an outlet, resulting in an absolutely blinding performance.
To dismiss Stewart’s Cesar win because ‘awards mean zip’ is akin to lobbing the baby out with the bathwater. Accolades as a yardstick for measuring success is a sticky wicket, granted, but French or otherwise, it signalled that the film industry by association holds her in the same esteem as a bunch of seasoned Euro-thesps. I know, I know, that’s all about perception and none of that really matters. In comparison, Eisenberg’s closest contemporary for the best actor gong was James Franco. Goes some way to explaining why he was nominated. Because the pool wasn’t particularly strong that year.
Sean: I’ll be over waiting for an answer for where K-Stew’s version of Social Network is, but I’ll let it slide for now. It’s telling, though. Despite relative accolades I think she just hasn’t had a role that can illustrate that she isn’t just a famous mannequin pushed in front of a film crew to flash despondent looks towards camera while anxiously biting her lip for no reason take after take.
It’s not just a question of range, it’s about actually trying to do a good job. They both put off an air of nervous slacker charm perfectly, but you can tell that beneath the insecure veneer, Eisenberg is actually trying to mold each role into his body of work as a whole. Stewart herself just seems surprised she keeps ending up in movies.
Maybe Sils Maria is a step in the right direction. I’m not sure if you know or not, but it’s fascinating to me that Assayas originally wanted her to play Chloe Moretz’s ditzy K-Stew proxy, which would have made things even more meta, but Stewart pushed for the assistant role. It’s the first instance I’ve ever seen of her actually taking hold of her cinematic image. It’s a shame it was behind the scenes.
Eisenberg invests, and you can tell it’s with a depth that Stewart has never done. He’s been doing this ever since he was in a small Noah Baumbach movie and it looks like he’s doing it in a gigantic superhero movie as Lex Luthor. It’s the mark of a good actor, and Stewart just isn’t a good actor. I’ll leave you with the last word.
Gem: If stuff like Squid hinted at Eisenberg’s future, then Sils Maria shows a glimpse at Stewart’s. Her Social Network is on its way.
Whether or not you believe Eisenberg’s commitment to some hidden depth within his work, or if he’s simply playing the same role in a different wardrobe, it’s hard for me to see past the surface. To me, he’s J-berg, without dynamism in his performances. I see he’s in a movie, I know what I’m getting.
I guess there’s the rub. Stewart’s got her imperfections, hurdles to overcome, and loads more roles to tackle to prove herself, and that’s what makes her appealing. To me, she’s simply the more interesting actor.
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