Some gorgeous men really beat you up with it. They may not mean to, but nonetheless there you sit, taking in the stunning symmetry, flawless bone structure, Michelangelo proportions, flecked green eyes, and covert stares from passersby, when suddenly you realize you have been rendered into 150 pounds of chewed Bubblicious in Gap wear. Jude Law—improbable as this may sound—is not one of those men.
True, his looks are kind of preposterous, even in a media saturated with flawless male specimens. Yet somehow the 31-year-old comes off more generous and inclusive with his physical presence—a team player in room beautification.
“Hey!” he says brightly, knocking a Marlboro Light into his palm. He’s buffer than I’d expected—not at all the slight, Brit-boy thespian—with thick worker hands and an outdoorsy tan. Law attributes his bronze skin and high spirits to a long, happy summer: camping in France, lounging in Venice, reading Italo Calvino, rediscovering the Pixies and the Velvet Underground. “I haven’t had a job to do, so I’ve been able to go out and sunbathe, lie by pools, run around with the kids,” he says. “Shall we head out?”
Yes, yes, I say, adjusting my hump and limping alongside.
Studs are old news in Hollywood, as are Superstuds, as are even Serious-Actor Superstuds, who don prostheses, bad hair, or scissorhands in critically lauded efforts to submerge their genetic windfall into Characters. But in this year’s Ironman Triathlon of film work—Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, I Heart Huckabees, and Alfie—Law has ventured beyond the expected career moves of a rising star. In the collection of performances he’s turned out in just the past four months, law has used his gifts more selflessly, fearlessly, and ambitiously than anyone would have expected.
This year, Jude Law managed to (a) redefine the fantasy-action film, (b) enact a funny, tragic, and inspiring dissection of our postmodern soul, and (c) expose the sexual psyche of the contemporary male. And this was all before December. He also stars with Julia Roberts in Mike Nichols’s Closer, narrates Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and portrays Errol Flynn in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator. None of these roles are, to say the least, in the playbook for actors scaling the highest peaks of stardom.
At this point in Law’s career arc, film stars usually start eyeing the Batsuit or wondering how they’ll look with an automatic weapon. Instead, Law, with a first-time director and no budget, set about producing and starring in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Kerry Conran’s visionary retro-futurist adventure yarn, whose lush, pointillistic ’30s-era world of skyscrapers and dirigibles was rendered digitally. Law, who says he comes to every role looking for a challenge, found this one to be. “How do we make it so the audience isn’t thinking, Oh, they’re not really there in that environment? We were stepping into a world of absolute make-believe, so I wanted to play it for real. From the guts.” Thus, Law’s Joe Sullivan is quite simply a brave, dashing sleuth, adventurer, and flying ace, out to save the world.
After his role as the haunted Civil War soldier Inman, who spends much of the two-and-a-half-hour Cold Mountain skulking around the ravaged southern countryside and looking poetically tortured, Law said he wanted to go light—to play some “chirpy chaps.” These would apparently include the giddy, jet-skiing exec Brad in Huckabees and the stylish Lothario of Alfie. But while these chaps do get chirpy, their most striking moments are quiet and devastating—in surprisingly similar ways. In both movies, Law’s character falls apart before our eyes, facing a moment when his entire conception of self is dashed and he weeps like a lost little boy. Given Law’s life of late, this may not have required much research.
Last fall, Law’s six-year marriage with British actress Sadie Frost, whom he met when he was 21 and with whom he was raising three children, imploded. No matter how rich, handsome, and successful you are, you don’t walk away from that without feeling pretty lost. Law moved out, bought a North London house to be near the kids, plunged into work, and ended up dating Alfie‘s delectable neo-Bardot costar, Sienna Miller.
Not that he’s eager to talk about any of this. When I ask if he’s in a steady relationship, Law tentatively says, “Yes…?,” giving me one of those sidelong glances he gave Matt Damon’s sleazy imposter in The Talented Mr. Ripley. But if Law is slow to share the details, it’s hard not to feel shock waves from his life’s recent turbulence as you watch him up there on the screen.
“The script, for whatever reason, hit a very poignant chord in me,” Law says of Huckabees, David O. Russell’s surreal, Tom Stoppard-ish tale of firemen, admen, and existential detectives, which he embarked on after Sky Captain. Law plays Brad, the glib, blond corporate nemesis to Jason Schwartzman’s swarthy and neurotic Albert, a bicycle-riding environmentalist whose quest for meaning the sprawl of post-E! Network L.A. draws Brad into his own identity crisis. Coming home to find his girlfriend estranged, his house in flames, and his career on the skids, Brad breaks down and weeps, right there in his own nicely manicured front yard.
“I don’t think any of these parts required much preparation,” Law says. Although it did oblige him to suckle Schwartzman from a prosthetic breast and endure a variety of harrowing psy-ops from Russell. “David undressing, David throwing things at us while we were performing,” Law recounts. “He’s so willing to try anything, whether it was vomiting, break dancing, putting on a pair of silicone tits. It became an incredible experience of saying, How far will you let yourself go with what he wants you to do? But I trusted him totally. There’s a strong, unpretentious spirituality about David. And the timing in my life… I needed to go there. I needed to be in that environment of frivolity and-” he pauses “introspection.”
After this, Law jumped right into an even more daunting challenge: updating the classic ’60s expose of male sexual opinion, Alfie, which made a star out of a thirty-something Michael Caine. Law’s lady-killer is an English cad in Manhattan, sharing his distinctly unchivalrous thoughts in viewer asides that make the brunch talk in “Sex and the City” seem like circumspect. We follow him from betrayal to betrayal as he shrugs apologetically, rationalizes eloquently, and remains so charmingly conspiratorial that we never resent all the ass he’s getting or the hearts he’s breaking.
The film has two nonverbal tours de force. One is at a nightclub seduction in which Alfie—through nothing but a triple-axel of flirty smiles and glances—pulls a 180 on a hottie who’s just denounced his breed of “Eurotrash.” The other is when Alfie, realizing that his rakish joie de vivre has just wrecked a friendship and ruined a life, breaks down behind the wheel of a borrowed sedan—sobbing and pounding the windshield in furious, self-hating grief.
Like Brad’s outburst in Huckabees, this a harrowing moment for a comedy; it serves as an anchor for this deceptively trenchant commentary on our age of lad mags and lifestyle. At a certain point, Alfie compares on of his conquests to a statue he saw in a museum: gorgeous from a distance, but up close, riddled with tiny cracks—“damaged.” This condition is close enough to home that when I mention the statue monologue, Law Freudian-slips its subject, Aphrodite, into “Adonis” before catching himself.
Damaged beauty has been a métier for Law in earlier parts. But this year, he found something new. Rather than the classically brooding, modernist roles associated with a young Brando or De Niro, Law’s latest are more cannily postmodernist: characters who have constructed entire identities around superficial trappings and who are, in the end, adrift in a sea of catalogs, soft porn, and aspirational consumption.
“The new challenge to me is, rather than playing someone who is holding it all in and therefore brooding and bubbling with cynicism and seamy inner workings, more to play the surface,” says Law. “I wanted to show the world how we actually try to live—one’s skin and one’s smile and that polished one-liner it seems we all want. “Brad had to have a dubious bottle tan and kind of an orange, Malibu tinted Sunkist hairdo. Alfie had to be a guy who’s trying to put together on a shoestring a look of ‘I’m a man about town,’ but his suits don’t fit him that well. We wanted the clothes to look cool but slightly too small, like he bought them on sale. You look at both, and immediately you’re looking at the essence of this person. I wanted to let that open up and finally let all that agony out.”
The film industry doesn’t offer many actors the range and quality roles Law has managed in a single year. But then, not too many stars would have the courage to brave the existential muck with Brad or the flip misogyny with Alfie or even the empty bluescreen with Sky Captain. “I know there’s a famous saying that’s something like ‘You often find you’re playing the part that’s right for you at that moment in your life,’” says Law. “I think the discoveries those guys went on were certainly, if subconsciously, mirroring my own at that time. I just tried to give what I had to them.”
Hence, the Jude Law Effect of 2004. Given such taste, intelligence, and creative generosity, Law inspires neither bitterness nor resentment, even in person. Your instinct is not to cower or to snarl at his good fortune. It’s more to walk up, shake his hand, and say, “Sir, I’d just like to thank you for being part of my species.”
© 2004 by Chris Norris