On a recent plane ride, I caught a few minutes of the in-flight movie, this year's Valentine's Day dud This Means War. The high-concept love triangle involving two spies (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy) and the woman they love (Reese Witherspoon) bombed at the box office. Although I closely followed Reese Witherspoon's early career, since she won an Oscar for Walk the Line she hasn't had a quality film by my measure (positive reviews + great box office) since. This Means War: case in point. Walk the Line was, in fact, a whole decade ago, and she made a number of so-so films in that wake, including the romances Just Like Heaven, Four Christmases, How Do You Know and Water for Elephants. The latter two could have been good, since they had James L. Brooks and literary
success, respectively, behind them, but neither earned accolades from critics or audiences. Witherspoon needs another good project, stat, and it looks like she finally has a few more projects that might just do that.
On the "may actually break $100 million, but probably won't get great reviews" side is The Beard, the star's most recent announcement. Witherspoon will play a woman who is a beard for a gay man (as in makes him appear to be straight to the public/outsiders), a situation that gets complicated when she actually falls in love. I see this working best if she really has a genuine affection and sincere friendship with this guy, but ends up being torn between that and her love of someone new. If there are celebrities involved, I definitely envision a scene where she is branded a cheater when in fact she's really just pursuing love for the first time. The Chernin Entertainment production comes courtesy of a spec script by TV writer Becca Greene. I can't really imagine this project being set anywhere other than Hollywood, where there are constant whispers of stars serving as each other's beards. But couldn't this blow the whole lid off this allegedly common Hollywood practice? I'm sure this will end up leaving countless readers of Us and People more cynical after realizing the lies they may have been told.
The Beard may be Witherspoon's comedy comeback, but the projects I'm most excited about are her dramas. The Southern-born star has turned back to her roots for a couple of her upcoming projects, something that will serve her well.
I was extremely impressed with writer/director Jeff Nichols' debut Take Shelter. Witherspoon has a small role in Nichols' follow-up project Mud, which centers on two boys' attempts to reunite a convict (Matthew McConaughey, also a star redefining his image) with his long-lost love (Witherspoon). I like that she's in a small, independent film. She showed up at the Cannes Film Festival to support the movie, though she reportedly has just a small role in the project. I think she'll need to have a bigger part in such a film in order to help her break out of the same-old.
That role might be in Devil's Knot, an adaptation of the West Memphis Three case that has been explored in documentaries like Paradise Lost. In Arkansas, three teens were falsely accused of killing three boys in a satanic ritual and sent to prison. Witherspoon is listed as playing Pamela Hobbs, the mother of the victim Stevie Branch. Her husband, the boy's stepfather, was accused by some of committing the murder. Atom Egoyan, the respected indie director of projects like The Sweet Hereafter, is directing.
Witherspoon's IMDB list includes plenty more questionable projects, including a role in the adaptation of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and a starring role in Wish List, in which a thirty-something career woman finds all her childhood wishes have come true. I worry that these projects seem trite and stereotypical. Witherspoon rose to fame because of one-two punches like Election and Legally Blonde, and I know she's capable of more than her recent films have shown.