Claudia Leisinger



I never understood the charmingly phrased description “shit-eating grin”. Munching on a turd never seemed likely to give anyone much cause to smile, unless perhaps you’re Divine in Pink Flamingos or Treat Williams’s “fecal freak” in Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead. But it seems my interpretation was misconstrued. Apparently the phrase actually refers to “a look of extreme satisfaction on someone's face that is annoying to other people who are less happy”; in other words, a grin so crazy only somebody happy to be eating shit would sport it.

Idiomatic accuracy aside, surely a far more realistic and more commonly seen definition of a “shit-eating grin” is something else entirely: namely, the desperate grimace employed in the face of having to suck up and chew on all of life’s daily injustices and indignities. The crap, to be blunt. And if this were the official SEG meaning, then surely the face to symbolize said forlorn rictus in modern American movies would belong to Greg Kinnear.

Kinnear has become the go-to guy for the movie role that you’d never catch any genuine movie star play repeatedly: the corporate-bound, eternally disappointed, middle-class, middle American Everyman; the WASP who always gets stung. Blandly good-looking in either suit or designated leisure uniform of polo shirt – or Hawaiian print on weekends - and pressed chinos, yet betrayed by baggy eyes, doughy, sallow skin and that familiar SEG. He’s the Prom King gone-to-seed, a would-be dynamo whose motor wound down whilst endlessly circling the office, the mall and suburbia. It’s not really an Eastwood / McQueen / Cruise-type thing (in About Schmidt Nicholson was old enough to make it poignant rather than just depressing); definitely more Greg Kinnear than Greg Peck.

Kinnear first came into the public eye as the urbane, witty host of talk show ‘Talk Soup’ and his first acting roles leaned heavily on this smooth image – Harrison Ford’s playboy younger brother in the ill-advised Sabrina remake; second-banana love rival to Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail; stuffed shirt Captain Amazing in superhero spoof Mystery Men. Indeed Kinnear could have made a career playing insipidly handsome, vaguely insincere, semi-bad guys, as the likes of Nurse Betty, Bad New Bears or his voiceover as the baddie in Robots prove.

Fine as he was, something about Kinnear whispered B-list from the outset. Handsome, but no Paul Newman. Charming, but no Clooney. You can’t picture him in any period movie, or attempting an accent outside of his continent. Yet he was never one-note. Amid this early flurry of dots on the learning curve, he got an Oscar nomination for a change of pace as a tortured gay artist in James L. Brooks’s As Good As It Gets. It was the first hint Kinnear could offer something other than slick professionalism and easy comic timing (though strangely the latter hasn’t been used nearly often enough – he easily matched Matt Damon in the Farrelly Brothers’ sweetly outrageous conjoined-twin spin Stuck On You). It took the deeply weird Paul Schrader to bring out Kinnear’s inner kinkiness, as voyeur / pervert extraordinaire Bob Crane in Auto Focus.

By day affable “Hogan’s Heroes” TV star, by night sex addicted cruiser, Kinnear’s guileless affability made Crane’s addiction to illicit danger all the more potent. Nevertheless, nine times out of ten, characters as out-there as Crane sre designated for Nic Cage or Johnny Depp. Robert Downey Jr, when he’s straight. So rather than fight a losing battle Kinnear has, deliberately or not, (auto)focused on characters who funnel their own inadequacies and frustrations internally. If movies hold up a mirror to our lives, the disaffected drone isn’t what you want to see staring back at you. Yet increasingly, Kinnear has made him not just someone you can’t avoid, but a character you want to examine more closely, to reveal what lies behind the quiet desperation.


The Matador is a good example. Kinnear’s Danny Wright is a mid-level salesman desperately hoping to resurrect his career down Mexico way, who gets involved with Pierce Brosnan’s self-loathing hitman. The entire movie is basically an excuse for its tagline (“a hitman and a salesman walk into a bar…”) but Brosnan’s career-best, Bond-breaking performance is matched all the way by Kinnear. Danny is a wreck, grieving a dead infant son and clinging on to the remnants of his former life. Fortune is a distant memory, luck an ugly rumour.

Yet Kinnear doesn’t merely try and sell us on Danny’s defeatism. When Julian replies to a soul-bearing monologue about his dead son with a dirty joke, Danny gets mad. Politely, seethingly mad. His insistence on an apology, that he won’t become a mere punchline in a drunken bar encounter is what sparks their unlikely friendship, and inadvertently, juices up his own life. “Don’t successful people always live with blood on their hands?” ponders Julian. Until now, Danny’s never had the stomach for the kill. Barely able to contain his horrified delight at access to an existence outside the box, he’s also incredibly fearful of jettisoning the little he has. It’s a dilemma that faces many white-collar workers and Kinnear nails the mix of incredulous abandon and innate caution perfectly. It’s the same shit, but a very different day.

Kinnear can fill in the genre dads (Godsend) and buddies (We Were Soldiers) designed not to overshadow nominal A-list leads all day long but the truth is, he’s such an unselfish actor that he fits in best in the group. It’s no coincidence that his upcoming films Unknown and Fast Food Nation are team efforts. As was the sleeper hit that will probably become his signature role, Little Miss Sunshine.

Sunshine’s earned its reputation as The Little Film That Could, from Sundance to the Oscars. Though no one associated with the film comes off badly, the acclaim for the brilliant ensemble is primarily aimed at the flashier roles - Alan Arkin’s foul-mouthed junkie grandpa, Steve Carell’s gay Proust scholar and failed suicide and cutie-pie Abigail Breslin’s pageant-obsessed nipper. They’re all great, as are co-stars Paul Dano and Toni Collette, but it’s still amazing, among a cast of six, how overlooked Kinnear has been.

At first glance, indeed for the first half-hour, Kinnear’s Hoover family patriarch Richard, seems by far the most simplistic and least interesting of the clan. There are winners and losers in the American Dream and Richard deludes himself that he’s securely ensconced in the former category. A third-rate motivational speaker and writer of a 12 Step self-help programme, it’s hard to imagine a portrait of a bigger loser, especially one who proceeds to patronize his entire family, notably his young idealistic daughter. The scene in the restaurant where he warns her off eating fattening ice cream makes you cringe. It’s the domestic, live-action version of Robots’ 2-dimensional villain Ratchet, resituated in a yellow VW minivan.

Then something interesting happens. For all Carell’s hilariously effete running, Arkin’s coarse one-liners and Breslin’s outrageous dance moves, the film arguably becomes the story of Richard Hoover’s self-realisation. (SPOILER ALERT) When his father dies, it doesn’t just force Richard to take responsibility for the family, he’s forced to confront the rules of society’s game. The officious hospital administrator would force them to miss his daughter’s beauty pageant over paperwork. Richard tries persuading, cajoling, even venting his anger at her. It doesn’t work. Richard loses.

And so, for possibly the first time in his life, Richard has to subvert the system. He decides to steal his father’s dead body and stick it in the family van. It works. Not that Richard is actually much good at being a rebel either. When a traffic cop pulls them over and he thinks he’s about to get rumbled for effectively stealing a corpse, it’s only down to sheer luck - and gay porn - that he gets away with it. Kinnear’s depiction of clammy desperation in these scenes is superb tragicomic acting. Richard’s a brittle performer ill equipped for the suppleness improvisation requires, but luckily Kinnear himself can contort with the best of them.

But it’s at the pageant where Richard really comes into his own. This should be the breeding ground for winners, the Petri dish where the American Dream is cultivated. Instead, and for the first time, all he sees is superficial glamour, supersized neediness and a mean-spirited, near fascistic insistence on conformity. The 12 steps lead straight down to Hell and finally even Richard can feel the heat.

The dawning look on Kinnear’s face as he watches each of the other “Little Misses” parade around like make-up-caked mini-Barbies, to the rapturous applause of the onlooking parents and pageant organizers, is spot-on, a shit-eating grimace of dawning horror. Whether Richard accepts he’s a Loser is almost beside the point and almost too easy a dichotomy. What he hasn’t allowed himself to see until now is that these others that he once aspired to be like, are definitely not winners. Not by any criteria that he can accept.

When young Olive finally takes to the stage and delivers her “Superfreak” strip dance routine, as sanctioned by Grandpa, it’s a stunner. At first Richard is too shocked to know how to respond. It’s only when those around him start to boo and hiss that his indignation rears up. Tellingly, Richard is the first Hoover up on stage to join Olive; now it’s approved by him too. Again, Kinnear is too unselfish to milk his big moment and within seconds he’s just one of five people unashamedly “kicking ass”, as Richard calls it, in a celebration of oddballs, outsiders who crashed the party. For once his grin is a real one. Though the bittersweet finale, the family sweeping off again in their bright yellow minivan, offers no reassurances except for Sufjan Stevens’s elegiac, wistful soundtrack.

The final part of Kinnear’s Everyman triptych is Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, a fictionalized version of Eric Schlosser’s expose. As the film begins, it appears that Kinnear has a rare lead role. His marketing executive Don Anderson at thinly-veiled McDonald’s proxy “Mickey’s” is sent to investigate impurities in their burgers. Excrement, to be exact. Don’s detailed investigation at the company’s massive Colorado meat-processing plant only confirms this. And further corroborates how the various industries collude in keeping profits up and safety and quality down.

Unable to affect any change without jeopardizing his own position, Don beats a slow retreat from his investigation and from the movie itself, director Richard Linklater switching focus onto a range of other characters from cheap Mexican factory workers to small-town student activists. As the unsavoury truth becomes increasingly apparent, Kinnear’s verbal and body language gradually slump into the only viable position his compromised company man can take. It’s not that he doesn’t try; at first he enjoys being the fly in the ointment, buzzing around, making a righteous nuisance of himself. But as soon as he understands the size and scale of the forces around him, he’s resigned to defeat. The final shot of Anderson leaving town is played without dialogue. There’s really nothing more he can say.

Kinnear sells this character partly because we’ve seen him deliver it before, partly because he excels at conveying the quotidian, incremental steps by which a man loses faith in himself and the world around him. He can feel his soul slipping away but he can’t stop it. We may not admire this, but we sure can empathise, especially when it’s set against those who proudly boast at their own sell-out as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Kinnear’s meeting with Mickey’s honcho Harry Rydell (Bruce Willis) is a blazing encounter (incidentally, Willis’s cameo is his best screen work for some time), Rydell blithely admitting that excrement regularly finds its way into the food chain, adamant that if it gets cooked, it’s no problem. “We all have to eat a little shit from time to time,” he grins at the hapless Don.

As if he needed to remind Greg Kinnear of that.

Leigh Singer

posted March 5th, 2007  

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