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Should 'In Time' star Justin Timberlake cry himself a river?

October 31, 2011 |  8:45 am


Many things could be said of Justin Timberlake's nascent acting career, but one thing he can't be accused of is playing it safe.

Since Timberlake made the decision to put sexy back, or at least on hold, and pursue acting, the former bubblegum pop star has gotten far away from his music roots. He's played a swaggery Silicon Valley salesman ("The Social Network'), a fast-talking but sensitive paramour in an offbeat romantic comedy ("Friends With Benefits"), a passive substitute teacher ("Bad Teacher")  and, this weekend, an impoverished hustler-hero (Andrew Niccol's "In Time").

What he hasn't been especially good at is turning his movies into hits. The two live-action films that performed well, "Social Network" and "Bad Teacher," did so largely on someone else's back. The two movies that relied more on his presence to sell tickets, on the other hand, performed modestly. "Friends With Benefits" was part of the have-not section of the class of R-rated comedies this summer (though it did OK internationally). And, this weekend, "In Time" looked to be out of same with a middling $12 million in box office.

The most obvious conclusion is that Timberlake isn't a leading man. He could carve out a nice character-actor career, but the clock is ticking down fast on him enjoying any Will Smith-like crossover success.

A look at Timberlake's resume doesn't entirely negate the point; as some critics have pointed out, he's an appealing presence, but rarely a sophisticated or overpowering one.

But it's also far too soon to write the obituary on his non-melodic efforts. As he hits his 30s, Timberlake is trying to move out of his comfort zone a lot faster and more often than many of his pop-music contemporaries (Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, who star largely in tune-driven flicks), which will naturally up the flop quotient. In fact, even when Timberlake is starring in a music-themed movie, as he will in the recently announced biopic of record producer Neil Bogart, "Spinning Gold," he's doing it with a hint of the unexpected. (He did that in "Get Him to the Greek" too, where he also played the industry man instead of the performer.)

As "In Time" hit the shoals, it was hard to avoid a comparison to another actor who crashed this weekend. In the 1990s, "The Rum Diary" star Johnny Depp was also a teenage heartthrob seeking a film career. Like Timberlake's "Benefits" turn, he looked to break out with an offbeat romantic comedy (or three), and, weirdly, even made a commercial misstep in a chase-thriller with a ticking-clock conceit ("Nick of Time").

Depp became much more than the "21 Jump Street" kid by working with auteurs like Tim Burton, a move that's not dissimilar to Timberlake's collaborations with David Fincher and Niccol.

That's the part Timberlake seems to get right. What the actor hasn't done, to this point, is show anywhere near the chops of Depp, whose dark-but-sensitive persona seems miles ahead of Timberlake's innocuous nice-guy shtick. And that's the area where JT might get a little more in sync.

As his accolades for "Social Network" show (as well as early work like "Alpha Dog"), Timberlake is indeed capable of something more manipulative and sinister.

For Depp, the pinup-to-star track was greased by just that--his willingness to play people who, while sympathetic, were also tortured and weird. For a personality like Timberlake, who can seem harmlessly likable--understandable given his concert-stage roots, where it's all about likability--that may be the biggest lesson of all. The way we might embrace him a little more may be if he tries to win us over a little bit less.


'Puss in Boots' wins weekend by more than a whisker

Justin Timberlake is focused on film

'In Time:' Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried on action and 'Alpha Dog' reunion

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Justin Timberlake in "In Time." Credit: 20th Century Fox