A conversation arose in the screening room the other day about the sorry state of young, romantic performers in movies today and the overwhelming blandness slathered across our movie screens. Pretty, plastic, chiseled faces smile at one another and sometimes kiss, and their efforts leave everyone cold. Critics and audiences often use the word "chemistry" to describe these encounters; either the characters have it or they don't. Strangely, there's really no way to tell if it's even there until the movie is finished. You can put two actors in a room together, or screen test them, but none of it comes together until the audience becomes a factor.

One reason most movie couples have been so bland lately is the ever-increasing control that studios are demanding of their product. Every aspect of filmmaking must be regulated and stabilized, and so, to make the most of their romantic stories, these same studio people very simply cast the most beautiful actors they can find. Beautiful people sometimes explode on the movie screen with lots of personality and star power, but just as often, they don't, looking more like polished statues without so much as a heartbeat. James Dean was very handsome, but he had a surprising element, a kind of unpredictability, as well as world-heavy sadness. But James Franco, who played Dean in a TV biopic, has only the looks. As shown in his most recent film, Spider-Man 3 (151 screens), where there should be passion and danger and excitement, there's only grooming. At times I honestly can't tell the difference between him and Paul Walker.

p class="MsoNormal">Another example comes in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (255 screens). We're apparently supposed to be excited when Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) get married and be upset when their wedding is interrupted. A mutt with a rich, mixed cultural heritage, Alba may be one of the hottest women on the planet, and she looks great in a bathing suit (Into the Blue) or in leather (Sin City) but she has never actually ignited an onscreen spark. The Welsh Gruffudd -- that name! -- is likewise stonily handsome but very rarely warm or dashing. Also in that movie, and in Danny Boyle's Sunshine (116 screens), we have the terminally bland Chris Evans. I just saw him in The Nanny Diaries and I was unable to remember who he was and that I'd just seen him in two other movies within the past two months.

Speaking of bland, what about Orlando Bloom, currently in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (139 screens)? Those pirate movies simply go limp whenever Bloom, rather than Johnny Depp, is entrusted with the spotlight. His co-star Keira Knightley is lovely, talented and can be quite potent, but like other actresses her age -- Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman (currently in Goya's Ghosts on 39 screens), Kirsten Dunst (currently in Spider-Man 3) and Anna Paquin -- she requires powerful material and a strong director to make her come alive. Each of these actresses has shone in good movies and disappeared into bad ones. Unlike those actresses, however, I never understood the appeal of Mandy Moore, currently in License to Wed (135 screens). She seems to me too safe, too perky, like a movie version of one of her vapid pop songs. She's all suntan and no substance.

Sienna Miller has taken more risks, but she doesn't pop from the screen. I saw her within the space of a few days in both Stardust and Interview (26 screens) and wasn't able to detect that it was the same girl. Some might say that that's good acting, but it also indicates a lack of spark. Keri Russell is a more difficult case. I never liked her much in movies or on her TV show "Felicity." She always seemed too narrow and fragile, but in her new movie Waitress (65 screens), she has found a new strength and humor that I like very much. Perhaps she too can only step up for good material and passionate directors. Likewise, the jury is currently out on Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up (281 screens). They worked so well together in that movie, but it remains to be seen if either of them alone can repeat the trick.

As always, I have hope. Cillian Murphy is one of my favorite young actors today, mainly because of his astonishing eyes (only Terrence Howard has such great eyes). So far, he has used those eyes for evil (Batman Begins, Red Eye) and for good (The Wind That Shakes the Barley), but either way, he's seductive and charming. He made a frighteningly good drag queen in Breakfast on Pluto and he even makes a believable scientist, intelligent and probing, in Sunshine. Finally, and I'm going to get clobbered for saying this, but I still adore Lindsey Lohan, currently in I Know Who Killed Me (334 screens), despite the fact that she has chosen mostly garbage. She has a loose physicality to go with her raspy, cooing voice. She's sensual and careless, as if her freckles somehow free her from modesty. She showed a new, exciting maturity in her latest movies, especially A Prairie Home Companion, and if she can get her personal life in shape, I expect to see great things from her. (Perhaps she can use some of her real-life despair in future roles.) It will be hard to find romantic matches for the likes of Murphy and Lohan, but wouldn't the two of them together be an interesting experiment?

categories Columns, Cinematical