The release of Click this week brings with it the annual Christopher Walken summer appearance in a large studio comedy. In Click he stars opposite Adam Sandler as a mad scientist. Last summer had him as the dominating patriarch of a kooky rich family in Wedding Crashers (one could argue that he was the most normal person there but, then again, we are supposed to believe these people are related to Christopher Walken). The summer of 2004 saw him in The Stepford Wives, lending his unusual presence to bloated dreck.
It has been a cooling-off period of sorts since Walken’s work in 2002’s Catch Me if You Can and Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” video (2001). For other actors, “a cooling-off period” tends to mean unemployment, but for Walken, it means a few years’ stretch of forgettable films that all capitalize solely on his halting delivery and electrified hair. Walken has lately been used to terrorize the new Frat Pack and is running the risk of his great work in Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter and Pulp Fiction being eclipsed by his new persona as the go-to guy for general unease.
Consider his small breakout scene in ’77’s Annie Hall, as Annie’s withdrawn younger brother, Duane, where he tries to reach out to Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer: “Alvy, I want to tell you this because you’re an artist and I think you would understand.” What he tells him is a dark comedic thrill. Flash forward to 1994 and Pulp Fiction where he hands over a gold watch to a young boy and tells the phenomenal story behind it. The tale has a broad punchline but isn’t delivered in a broad manner; Walken speaks matter-of-factly yet with a sense of awe over the significance of the watch. If you don't know how the watch got into Walken's hands, let him be the one to tell you—it's a delight.
Walken is unique. His voice has a cool cackle and his face is at once hard-looking and softly becoming; it’s like cruel arrogance done over by world weariness. He is so versatile and talented as an actor that he has pulled off over 90 movies in 30 years, often being the one memorable character in them. The Internet Movie Database describes Walken as “nervous-looking” but that is more true of his work in the ’70s than today. Nowadays, he operates with the certain assurance that comes with being an established star.
These last few years of typecasting have been the hardest for a Walken fan. His last great performance, in Catch Me if you Can, he plays Leonardo DiCaprio’s father. Other, more immediately genial actors could have played the role well enough, but the joy Walken’s character takes in his son’s exploits is infused with sadness and regret for the way both of their lives turned out. Walken was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for it. He initially seems like an unusual choice for a fatherly role but it is indicative of the fact that he is at his best when he is playing straight and (for what we are used to) normal but, again, given the opportunity to surprise. Remember the craze for “Weapon of Choice?” Who knew Walken could dance?
But maybe this is all his fault, anyway. He claims to hate to be out of work so he takes on as many roles as are offered to him. Still, someone is sending him those scripts! Unimaginative casting directors and producers should be held somewhat responsible for demanding only one thing from an actor that can do many. If only Walken would read (or someone would send him) something like Pulp Fiction more often.
He is most enjoyable when he is used differently and wasted when seemingly playing to his strengths—Click isn’t even out yet and one knows exactly which Walken performance they are paying for. Seeing him in movies such as Click and Wedding Crashers is inherently funny because of his odd aura, but at what point does such a joke turn into a laugh at him, not with him?
Click opens Friday.