Dan Stevens is having, by almost all accounts, a very good 2017. The former Downton Abbey star is everywhere, from small screens (Legion) to independent theaters (Colossal) to the biggest movie of the year so far (Beauty and the Beast). His latest starring vehicle, The Ticket, opens in New York theaters and hits on-demand streaming Friday — the same day as Colossal opens — while his film Permission will play the Tribeca Film Festival in April.
Yes, Stevens is sitting pretty, called likable and attractive in equal measure. Yet when a publication like Elle magazine seeks to profile the actor, they describe him as being "on the cusp of being famous." It's been years since his role on a hugely popular TV drama, and he's currently ubiquitous. But somehow, Stevens remains on the wrong side of his breakout moment.
Despite his seeming omnipresence in 2017 pop culture, a closer examination reveals a lot of the projects to be less than ideal for a star on the rise. For example, while his parts in The Ticket and Permission are starring roles, neither seems destined for major box office success — nor, frankly, critical success, at least regarding the miserable malaise that is The Ticket.
The Ticket poses the question of what would happen if a blind man suddenly gained his sight, and answers with a resounding: "He'd become a giant asshole." The character is deeply unsympathetic, and Stevens uses his charisma for menace rather than charm. The same could be said for Beauty and the Beast, which obscures Stevens' winning good looks behind the mask of a grumpy buffalo for all but the finale. The lead in an $880 million-grossing movie is only worth so much when you're only visible for a bit at the end.
Stevens is also playing a deeply unpleasant character in Colossal, a movie that has more empathy for its villain than it does for him. As Tom, Stevens plays a jerk from start to finish; watching Anne Hathaway's Gloria tell him off is one of the film's most purely thrilling moments.
Arguably, the best role in Stevens' roster is Legion, considering it keeps him front and center as the protagonist. But there are problems there too, namely that he is once again sacrificing likability by playing a character seemingly destined to become a villain. Additionally, it was Aubrey Plaza who earned the lion's share of the raves for Legion's first season, not Stevens.
We keep harping on him being likable not because that's all a movie star can be — in fact, that would get boring in a flash — but because Stevens seems to be both misunderstanding his own strengths and allowing himself to become one-note. Playing unlikable over and over again is just as boring, and frankly, Stevens isn't so amazing at being a jerk. Hollywood can use his talents more effectively than this.
This problem seems like it stemmed from 2014's The Guest, a critically acclaimed thriller starring Stevens as David, a mysterious soldier whose charming façade disguises a dark secret. Stevens earned raves for his work, but unfortunately, the movie was hardly a box office hit.
While The Guest proved Stevens can do menacing, the difference here is how he used his natural guile. At first, David is warm and friendly. It's only later that his dark side peeks through. The Ticket and Beauty and the Beast certainly give Stevens moments to play charming, but the overall effect is more of the dark side than the light.
Though he's hitting ubiquity now, Stevens does have time to break through in a major way both as an actor and as a star. He just needs to vary his work up a bit. On paper, yes, The Ticket, Colossal and Beauty and the Beast read as different projects. But that doesn't matter much if his roles in them feel like repeated beats.
Once Stevens gets a handle on what works for him, and finds the roles that fit his skills best, the sky's gonna be the limit for him. Right now, he's just as Elle said: on the cusp.
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