Let's Talk About John Goodman

John Goodman is creepy in a bunker in '10 Cloverfield Lane.' (Screenshot courtesy of Paramount)

John Goodman is creepy in a bunker in '10 Cloverfield Lane.' (Screenshot courtesy of Paramount)

John Goodman is a prolific actor.  Let me speculate that you probably already know that.  In fact, I'm going to go so far as to say you’ve seen John Goodman on screen before.  Whether in TV or film, he’s done it all, and you know this.  We all know this.  I am so dead certain that he is that ingrained in American popular culture, I'm willing to claim that 99.9% of American citizens over the age of 15 with access to an internet connection have a favorite John Goodman character.  Or in the very least, they have a favorite movie or show in which he's appeared. He is America's greatest supporting actor, after all.  For the record, my favorite of his is Walter Sobchak from 'The Big Lebowski.' Of course it is. 

(So, why am I writing about an actor who everybody knows?  Because he's in an interesting new movie, that's why.)

John Goodman stars in '10 Cloverfield Lane,' opposite Mary Elizabeth Winstead and lesser known John Gallagher Jr.  In it, he plays a creepy doomsday prepper named Howard, who locks himself and the two others in his Armageddon bunker while something terrible may or may not be happening in the outside world. I won't say whether or not there is, and that's not really the point of the movie.

Goodman is fantastic in this role.  He nails the balance of overly-prepared and detail-oriented; creepy, unpredictable and always-watching; and almost sympathetic to the point that you recognize he's still human. By many accounts, he's one of the best parts of a film that has been critically well-received.  He could very well be nominated for an Academy Award for his turn in this movie, and it would be hard to argue against him deserving that nod.  I was personally surprised by how good he was in this role, and yet I really shouldn't be surprised by his acting skills at this point - he's been around.  All of that said, I argue that John Goodman should not have been cast as the main antagonist in this movie.

'10 Cloverfield Lane' is a Bad Robot Production, Bad Robot being JJ Abrams' production company. You may have heard of Abrams too - he's become pretty well-known in his own right the past decade and a half.  He has created several successful television shows, including 'Felicity,' 'Alias,' and one of the most obsessed-over shows of all time, 'Lost,' the pilot of which he also directed. He has gone on to direct and produce major, big budget studio films, including the first two chapters in the 'Star Trek' reboot, and of course, the new 'Star Wars' movie.

But I think where JJ and Bad Robot have succeeded the most, at least in creating lasting and fun art, is in taking unknown casts, secretive and mysterious story lines, and surprising us with their quality. I'm thinking about the opening two hours of 'Lost' here, but also about the movie 'Cloverfield' (and to a lesser degree, even the newest 'Star Wars').

If you've been paying attention, you probably noticed that the titles of 'Cloverfield' and '10 Cloverfield Lane' are more than a little similar.  This is quite obviously not a mistake.  If the newer film isn't a direct descendant of the original, it does at the very least share the same filmmaking worldview - which is to say, it likes mystery and small, character-driven stories surrounded by potential world-changing events. Even Abrams' bigger-budget Spielbergian films like 'Super 8' are about the people more than they are the possible monster.  And '10 Cloverfield Lane' is no different.  But where it strays and differs from those others, is in the casting of a big name in one of the lead roles.  

Goodman is excellent as the antagonist with shadowy motivations and does as good as any living actor probably could have in that role.  But he's also distracting.  Where no big-name, top-billed actor appeared in the earlier 'Cloverfield' (or really in 'Lost' either), one of the most famous actors in the world shares the screen with only two other relatively unknown actors, in what is essentially a 100-minute bottle episode of 'The Twilight Zone.' What this does is remove the viewer from the anonymity and unknown of the world in which the movie inhabits and places us squarely back in Hollywood movie land.  

'10 Cloverfield Lane' was not initially produced by JJ Abrams, and scenes were shot later and added to the film when Bad Robot came into the picture in order to tie this movie with its eponymous predecessor. This doesn't and shouldn't matter.  The movie is small, independent, and features a strong screenplay.  It doesn't need star power - it's just good. Where I was distracted was not by John Goodman as a bad guy (he's played them before, and to good effect), or by my inability to imagine that actors are not the people they portray on screen.  No, where I was distracted was in seeing such a familiar face cast in the role of the mysteriously motivated and possibly evil.

Goodman has had a 30+ year career in Hollywood. He's played Dan, Walter, Sulley, and now: Howard.  If the name fits, the role and movie don't. It is actually harder than you'd think to name the actor who should have played the role in place of him - trust me, I've tried.  But at the end of the day, while I always enjoy his character work, this time it was too much for the movie it's in. While he may receive his first Oscar nomination for the film, I think the movie is worse off for it.  See '10 Cloverfield Lane' if you like these kinds of stories.  It's very good, and I think most people will enjoy it.  But don't blame me if all you really want is to go bowling with Howard.