Box office: Do Jason Segel and Jason Statham need new acts?
There may be no second acts in American life. Fortunately, Jason Statham and Jason Segel work in the movie business, which is somewhere very far away from mainstream American life.
Just a few years ago, the two Jasons were unquestionably on the rise, albeit in very different genres. Segel could do no wrong as the nice guy in sweet-but-raunchy comedies. Hits such as "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "I Love You, Man" began to flow, and a niche sitcom, "How I Met Your Mother," began to establish itself.
Statham was on his own upward trajectory. After emerging in Guy Ritchie films more than a decade ago, the tough-talking Brit solidified his status as an action hero with a dependable franchise in "Transporter." He then had a tidy late-summer performer in "Death Race" and was a key younger element in the blockbuster "The Expendables."
Then things began to change for both men. Segel staked a great deal of his reputation on his revival of "The Muppets," which was a modest and not entirely memorable performer last year. The streak turned colder this spring in the lower-budget "Jeff, Who Lives at Home," which flopped by all but the most indie of standards (though, to be fair, the movie inexplicably got only a small release in the first place). "How I Met Your Mother" has begun to show its age. And then this weekend, "The Five-Year Engagement" gave Segel the lowest numbers for a wide opening since he became a star.
Statham also has hit a wall, and finally it was one he couldn't punch through. After a 2008-2010 period in which the actor had a prolific four movies that grossed at least $30 million (on modest budgets), Statham's next two pictures, "The Mechanic" and "Killer Elite," each fell short of that mark. Then this weekend he too had one of his lowest openings as a star, with the measly $7.7-million take of "Safe.”
On one level, the story of the two Jasons is an age-old tale -- the actor who went to the well once too often. Studio executives like to say that actors should stay on brand. But the truth is that many performers can only play the same character so many times before audiences start to feel like they've seen it before, and turn away.
The Jasons also may be falling prey to something more specific. Fans didn't just flock to these actors' movies because they liked them; they flocked to these actors because they weren't seeing too many other people do what they were doing.
Prior to Segel and a few of his ilk, we hadn't seen the nice guy toss out ribald barbs. Statham also was a novelty, at least in this age -- a genuine action hero, a man who could punch and kick his way out of a problem with his God-given hands instead of relying on superhero powers (or just brooding darkly about those problems). These were actors, in other words, who staked their appeal on their freshness. And freshness kind of has an expiration date.
The way around this, of course, is to do something totally different and show film fans that you're still capable of surprise. Five years ago that meant a part in a smaller, more prestige-y movie. But there are fewer of those roles than there used to be, and in any event, they're increasingly taken by the likes of Brad Pitt and George Clooney, who have shown an insatiable appetite for them.
Still, some commercial actors are able to make the transition. Check out Jonah Hill, Segel's "Knocked Up" costar, who has cleverly managed to find new avenues for his brand of goofy comedy, in more dramatic vehicles such as "Moneyball" and more action-y pictures like "21 Jump Street."
Both Statham and Segel have several of those new paths open to them. But they’re going to need to start venturing down one or two, or risk becoming tired old acts.
Photo: Jason Segel and Emily Blunt in "The Five-Year Engagement." Credit: Universal Pictures