The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Is it time for Leonardo DiCaprio to ditch that frown and embrace his inner clown?

August 10, 2010 |  5:04 pm

Leo_dicaprio I guess it's true that Leonardo DiCaprio hasn't cracked a smile on screen in about a hundred years. Or so it seems, especially if you've been loyally heading out to the multiplexes for all his recent films, including, of course, "Inception," which has exactly one good joke in the entire movie, coming when one of its characters asks, "Whose subconscious are we going into exactly?"

So I suspect my colleague, Times film critic Betsy Sharkey, has found plenty of people who agree with her provocative piece in today's paper, which is succinctly headlined: "Lighten up, Leo!" (I've added the exclamation point, because, well, I knew that's what Betsy really had in mind.) After citing all of DiCaprio's ultra-serious movies from the past few years, Sharkey says: "Suffice it to say that there are more than enough dark endeavors to turn that deep worry line already etching its way between his brows into a veritable chasm. Besides, wouldn't it be nice to see DiCaprio's dazzling smile, the one that crinkles those aquamarine eyes so winningly, on something besides the Jumbotron at Lakers games?"

But why is DiCaprio so intent on starring in such dark films? And why, as Sharkey wonders, is he so reluctant to play a sexy rake or charming conman, as he did in "Titanic" and "Catch Me If You Can"? I think the answer is pretty obvious, especially if you look at the two actors who clearly had the biggest influence on DiCaprio's career--Robert De Niro and Johnny Depp. As it turns out, DiCaprio, who turns 36 in November, isn't really taking a career path that's so different from other gifted actors at his age, notably De Niro and Depp. When you're young, especially as an actor or a musician, you're often obsessively curious about the dark corners of the world--it feels like going for laughs is a betrayal of your gifts as an artist.

When De Niro was 36, he still had a total aversion to mainstream Hollywood fluff, sharing his muse Martin Scorsese's fascination with twisted and tortured characters. De Niro wouldn't do a real comedy until "We're No Angels," which he made when he was 46. It was an excruciating bomb, putting him off comedy for another decade until he hit paydirt with "Analyze This." It's worth remembering that De Niro was at the height of his influence on young actors when DiCaprio costarred with him in "This Boy's Life," so it's not at all unlikely that if De Niro gave young Leo any career advice, it was probably--Hey, kid, you've got talent. Whatever you do, don't waste it on a dumb comedy like I did.

Depp (who costarred with Leo in "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") is clearly the other big influence on DiCaprio, not to mention nearly every other young actor alive. And what would DiCaprio have learned from the early career choices of Depp, who didn't turn 36 until 1999? To do just what DiCaprio has been doing--work with gifted directors. Just as Depp has spent his career making challenging films with Tim Burton, DiCaprio has now developed a creative rapport with Martin Scorsese, having made four films with him in the past eight years. Depp's early films were nearly all director-centric, with him working with the likes of Roman Polanski, Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch and Lasse Halstrom when he wasn't doing Burton films. The only lesser light Depp allowed to direct him was Jeremy Leven, who made the awful "Don Juan Demarco," but the obvious draw there was working with Marlon Brando.

So I suspect that the real reason why DiCaprio is making so many dark, disturbing movies is that they are the kind of pictures that filmmakers--at least the filmmakers DiCaprio wants to work with--are drawn to. After all, the next movie on DiCaprio's dance card is "Hoover." Has he really had a lifelong infatuation with the long-dead FBI czar? Or does Leo just want to work with Clint Eastwood? Not all good actors have a nose for good material, but the really smart actors do have a knack for working with talented filmmakers, which is why I'm not too worried about DiCaprio. He's making terrific movies. And when he gets old and gray and loses his hair, he and Depp can always get a few laughs doing a remake of "The Sunshine Boys."

 Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from the Martin Scorsese film "The Aviator."   Credit: Andrew Cooper / Miramax Films