I remember the first time I saw Jack Black in a movie. I was around 12-years-old, home sick from school with the flu, watching a terrible film on some cable channel very early in the morning. The film was Airborne (1993), starring supposed heart-throb Shane McDermott and a relatively unknown Seth Green. And then I saw him. He had the small supporting role of Augie, an academically under-achieving bully, but every time he came on my screen I sat up a little bit. He was more than funny, he was commanding, and this made him stick out more than the actors playing the lead roles.
A few years later, I saw him popping up in some terrible films like The Cable Guy (1996) and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (1998), but was always happy to see him. Mr. Black has come a long way in his career, and while many of the movies he appears in aren’t exactly worthy of critical acclaim, he puts everything he has into his roles and delivers.
His most recent appearance in theaters was in the film Bernie (2011), which is currently on a limited re-release. Directed by Richard Linklater and co-starring the wonderful Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, this promising dark comedy looks as if it properly showcases Black’s talent. Jack Black is more than a funny man; he brings humanity to the characters he plays and often provides us with witty social commentary in his performances. Here I seek to bring you my three personal favorite performances of his that give us so much more than a laugh.
3. Jeff Portnoy in Tropic Thunder (2008)
His portrayal of comedian and struggling drug addict Jeff Portnoy is not only funny and entertaining, but also rather sad. While all the characters in the film have personal struggles that add much to the story, the intensity of Portnoy’s need to take drugs launches into a subtextual commentary on clichéd Hollywood excess and the insecurities of celebrities. Through comic exaggeration, Black’s performance highlights the seriousness of drug addiction and how detrimental it has been to not only Portnoy’s career, but his personal life.
2. Carl Denham in King Kong (2005)
Sure, it’s over the top. The very fact that the epic classic was remade is in itself ridiculous. As such, Jack Black’s performance is perfect. Denham is an obsessed man of the worst kind; he is consumed by his ambition and his vision, and willing to go to any lengths to make it happen. He kidnaps his writer (Adrian Brody), takes advantage of a struggling actress (Naomi Watts), and puts everyone in mortal danger—but, hey—he’s an artist. What I love about this character and Black’s performance is their commentary on American values and the “American Dream”—Denham’s obsession is so extreme it borders on mental illness. Children all over our nation are taught that if you work diligently and push as hard as you can, you can achieve anything. There is a very dark side to this that feeds into a culture of selfishness, greed, inconsideration for others, and ultimately, immorality in order to reach our goals. Black brings the dark side of the American Dream to life perfectly through the intensity of his gaze, his manner of speaking, and even through his assertive walk.
1. Nacho in Nacho Libre (2006)
That’s right, I said it. And no, I’m not ashamed. Nacho is not only funny, he is a man of values—the polar opposite of Carl Denham. His character also has a dream, but decides to use it for good. After he achieves his goal through true hard work and perseverance, he goes back to his old life. Black brings a sweet innocence to Nacho that is not only lovable but compassionate. We laugh at his childlike antics but he is completely uninhibited and unafraid to stand up for what he believes in, and this is beautiful. He wants something better not only for himself, but for the orphans in his care. Black’s physical comedy is quite a sight to see, and his timing is perfect. Nacho is one of my favorite characters of all time.
I stand by my top three favorite Jack Black performances. Others noteworthy roles, as they break him out of the strictly comedic mold he is often pressed into, are Georgie in Jesus’ Son (1999), uncredited Mental Patient in Melvin Goes to Dinner (2003), and Malcolm in Margot at the Wedding (2007). So Jack Black, I salute you and your talent, as you are much more than a funny face.