Jennifer Aniston is the most peculiar of A-list celebrities. She’s a movie star with no star power.
Few female celebrities are as recognizable—or on as many magazine covers—as Aniston. But when it comes to selling tickets at the box office, Aniston, for all her apparent popularity, seems remarkably … unpopular.
Over the past decade, she dropped one box-office bomb after another during her attempted run as the next America’s Sweetheart. On Wednesday, she’s opening in the raunchy family comedy We’re the Millers, continuing her recent transition into the sexed-up, R-rated shock-humor genre. Aniston plays a burnt-out stripper who goes undercover as a normal housewife to smuggle drugs. The film is not good. And neither, really, is Aniston.
She’s failed as the next rom-com queen. She’s flailing in her attempt at becoming a lascivious leading lady. So what, exactly, do we want from Jennifer Aniston?
It’s not that Aniston’s attempts to carve a career in those respective niches were random or even that misguided. By the time Friends ended in 2004, she was the very definition of America’s Sweetheart. She was the most popular character on one of the era’s most cherished TV shows. Her media narrative—sweet, beautiful woman wronged by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie—won her invaluable “we feel you, gurl” empathy from the public. And having co-starred in Bruce Almighty, Along Came Polly, and The Break-Up, she racked up a solid run as the female lead in strong box-office performers.
It made sense, then, to vault her alongside Reese Witherspoon, Sandra Bullock, and Cameron Diaz as the next big romantic comedy star. Instantly, she began booking roles in the most bland and generic (read: boring) films the genre has to offer, the kinds of movies that earn rom-coms their negative reputation as clichéd and ridiculous. There was the lifeless and hokey Management ($934,000 box office) and Love Happens ($22 million). Then came the painfully unfunny trifecta of The Bounty Hunter ($67 million), The Switch ($27 million), and Just Go With It (a $103 million gross proving people will watch anything with Adam Sandler in it).
Smartly in 2011, she seized on her very failure as the sweet, lovable rom-com lead to shock audiences into you’ve-never-seen-her-like-this-before laughter with 2011’s Horrible Bosses. Aniston played a dentist with a voracious sexual appetite and a filthy mouth. She won raves for her willingness to dirty up her squeaky-clean image. After the film grossed a solid $117 million, Aniston forged a new career path: veer vulgar.
She followed up Horrible Bosses with last year’s Wanderlust, another R-rated comedy, this one about a city couple who moves onto a commune and learns to embrace the alternative lifestyle—nudists, orgies, and all. But while the bawdiness worked for her in Horrible Bosses, Wanderlust received mixed-to-negative reviews from critics (“trundles along unevenly, never reaching the cleverly raucous state it seeks,” for example) and went limp at the box office, taking in just $17 million.
We’re the Millers marks Aniston’s third consecutive try at R-rated success. The film co-stars Jason Sudeikis and Emma Roberts as fellow degenerates who pose with Aniston’s stripper character as a fake family in order to slyly smuggle drugs across the border. Aniston’s character talks about testicles and blow jobs and performs a slow-motion striptease. She teaches her fake son how to French kiss, gets felt up by a housewife played by Kathryn Hahn, and says “fuck” a lot. Raunchy? Yes. Funny? Not really.
The movie’s tracking pegs it to be a bit of a box-office wild card. BoxOffice.com speculates an opening in the range of $20 million, while The Hollywood Reporter forecasts as much as $40 million. But Drew McWeeny at HitFix sums up why, no matter the box-office return, the film was a colossal misstep for Aniston: “I have a feeling that if you bring this film up to me next month, I won’t even remember having seen it.”
That, actually, has been something of a recurring problem in Aniston’s career. Even when she stars in a film that does well at the box office, it’s difficult to argue that she’s been the draw—or sometimes remember that she was even in it. Bruce Almighty scored on the back of Jim Carrey; Aniston’s role as “the girlfriend” could honestly have been played by any skinny Hollywood actress. It’s hard to remember anything about that A-list ensemble orgy He’s Just Not That Into You, let alone the fact that Aniston starred in it, and Marley and Me had Aniston playing third banana to Owen Wilson and … a dog.
It’s telling, however, that when someone is asked to recall a film in which Aniston was truly, genuinely great, it’s not any of those box-office hits, cheesy rom-coms, or R-rated raunchfests they cite. It’s the 2002 indie The Good Girl. Like Horrible Bosses attempted a decade later, it was a film starring Aniston as you’ve never seen her before, this time as a fantastic actress playing a listless small-town store clerk who gets lost in a misguided affair with a stock boy. It wasn’t a “movie star” role of the sort she’s been pursuing ever since. It was an actress’s role, the kind she’s only taken, really, one other time since: 2006’s woefully underrated Friends With Money.
That’s the sad thing. For all the pontification over Aniston’s career missteps—this piece included—it’s so easy to forget that the reason audiences fell in love with her in Friends and catapulted her to that upper echelon of celebrities was because of her acting. She was largely unknown when she debuted as Rachel Green, delivering a kooky, bumbling, ditzy performance entirely devoid of vanity. It wasn’t a leading lady performance. It was the work of a brilliant character actress, potential she exhibited again in Friends With Money.
Perhaps in an attempt to live up to that title of Movie Star she’s been branded with, she’s shied away from tapping back into that. (Certainly, the raves she received for Horrible Bosses proves her strength as a character actress.) If she’s smart she’ll revisit those kinds of roles.
The good news, however, is that she may be starting to. Her next film is Life of Crime, the prequel to Jackie Brown written by Elmore Leonard (Justified, Out of Sight). She plays the kidnapped wife of an embezzler opposite Tim Robbins, John Hawkes, and Isla Fisher. It’s set to close the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and it sounds fantastic.
Finally, it could be the reminder everyone needs that she’s not just a movie star, or an Us Weekly cover girl. She’s an actress.