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This should be a big week for Ryan Reynolds. He has two potential summer blockbuster movies opening, both of which stand to ingratiate him with different sets of moviegoers. In family cartoon "Turbo," opening July 17, he's the voice of a super-fast snail with dreams of hot rod racing. And in action comedy "R.I.P.D.," based on a comic book, he's a rookie in a department for undead cops who partners with grizzled ghostly lawman Jeff Bridges.
And yet, a quarter-century into the 36-year-old Canadian actor's career, which has included several leading-man roles, we still have to ask: Why isn't Ryan Reynolds a bigger star?
It's not like Reynolds isn't movie-star talented (check out his one-man performance in "Buried"). Or movie-star handsome (he was named People's Sexiest Man Alive a couple years ago). Or movie-star fascinating (his marriages to Scarlett Johansson and Blake Lively have kept him a tabloid fixture). And yet, none of that has translated into the kind of star power that would make him a reliable box office draw, the kind that makes people say, "Let's go see that new Ryan Reynolds movie."
And it's not even a sure thing that this week's one-two punch will help. After all, no one ever becomes famous for their faceless role in a cartoon. (If they could, Reynolds's voice work in this year's earlier animated hit "The Croods" would have been a bigger career boost.) And there's no guarantee he'll have a smash in "R.I.P.D.," given its tricky tonal shifts between action, horror, and comedy, as well as its stiff competition at the multiplex (horror movie "The Conjuring," fellow action-comedy "Red 2," and holdovers like "Grown Ups 2," "Despicable Me 2," and zombie-themed "World War Z").
Still, it's not like Hollywood hasn't been trying to sell us on Reynolds as a leading man for more than a decade, at least since 2002's "National Lampoon's Van Wilder." Despite his appearances in such hits as "Blade: Trinity," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," "The Proposal," and "Safe House," he can't be said to have carried a movie; indeed, each of those could be credited to Reynolds's co-stars (Wesley Snipes, Hugh Jackman, Sandra Bullock, and Denzel Washington, respectively). His one big recent shot at a blockbuster and franchise-launcher was "Green Lantern," which earned $116.6 million but cost about $200 million and was widely deemed a critical and commercial flop.
There are two possible reasons Reynolds hasn't been able to translate his appeal into full-fledged movie stardom. One is his choice of material. Granted, "Green Lantern" is a movie any actor his age might have chosen, but it's also about a lesser-known DC comic book character, one with a very weird origin story and, as it turned out, a not terribly compelling villain. (Reynolds also played a lower-tier character, Deadpool, in "Wolverine," but Marvel does better by its lesser names than DC, at least at the movies, and there's still a shot at a Deadpool franchise.)
"The Change-Up" was also an unfortunate choice. In summer 2011, a season full of seemingly can't-miss R-rated comedies including "Bridesmaids," "Bad Teacher," and "Horrible Bosses," it was the one that flopped, grossing just $37.1 million. Unlike the other raunchy comedies that summer, all of which were fairly original, "Change-Up" seemed a tired variation on the supernatural body-switch comedies that went out of fashion more than 20 years ago. Again, anyone can choose a flop; after all, Jason Bateman chose to be in "Change-Up," too. But Bateman also chooses hit movies with hit co-stars, like this year's "Identity Thief," opposite Melissa McCarthy. A lot depends on script and execution, but those elements just haven't been there in a lot of the movies Reynolds has picked.
The other possible reason is that moviegoers don't know who Reynolds is. That is, he hasn't established a consistent screen persona, so that people know what they're getting when they go see one of his films. Reynolds has, in fact, two personas. There's the mischievous rogue -- the Reynolds of "Van Wilder," "Waiting," "Adventureland," "Wolverine," "Green Lantern," and "Change-Up." And then there's the put-upon schlub, the Reynolds of "The In-Laws," "Just Friends," "Definitely, Maybe," "The Proposal," and apparently, "R.I.P.D." It's pretty hard to be both a manipulative slickster and a hapless patsy; at some point, Reynolds is going to have to choose.
But what about versatility? Isn't that an asset? Well, yes, up to a point. Robert De Niro and Johnny Depp are two of the most versatile actors out there, but we still like De Niro best when he's playing violent psychos and Depp when he's playing flamboyant eccentrics. They can save their versatility for the art house. That's what Reynolds has done for material that takes him beyond his two personas, movies like "Buried" or "The Nines." But he's going to have to look for an even narrower range of mainstream material if he wants to build a brand.
Reynolds is always an enjoyable presence in movies, even ones as otherwise unwatchable as "Waiting" or "Green Lantern." But to become a star, he'll have to be something more than reassuringly professional. He'll have to find material that gives him a chance to show some charisma, movies where he's not upstaged by bigger stars, and where he gets to show viewers exactly who he is. Which is, um...