1998: Adolescent girls wallpaper their bedrooms with photos of their favorite ‘NSYNC member ripped from Tiger Beat and Bop Magazine. 2001: A new generation of adolescent girls falls in love with him, perhaps missing the ‘NSYNC frenzy but arriving just in time for his debut solo album, Justified. But with the launch of his solo career, Justin Timberlake begins to receive recognition from more than just young girls. Rock critics begin taking notice, giving Justified mostly positive reviews. And even those who disclaim boy bands and pop music generally agree that JT has musical talent. 2006: JT makes the transition from being a studio recording artist to an actor. He releases FutureSex/LoveSounds (the last album he has recorded in over five years) to more positive reviews and also appears in his first really noteworthy acting role in Nick Cassavetes’s Alpha Dog. And with the airing of the digital short, “Dick in a Box” on Saturday Night Live, mass audiences credit JT as being a genuinely talented, comical, and likable individual.
Justin Timberlake is particularly fascinating because of the fact that his fans initially consisted primarily of adolescent girls, but he has managed to gain a considerably wider fan base over the years. From his ‘NSYNC days to his solo career, to his always welcome appearances on SNL, to his burgeoning acting career—not to mention his business ventures into fashion design, music production, and his turn as a restaurateur—he continuously surprises us with his versatility. And this versatility has significantly contributed to his ever-growing popularity.
JT hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time in 2003 and showed us that his talent extended beyond music to comedy. He entertained viewers with skits such as The Barry Gibb Talk Show (which was popular enough to become a recurring sketch, airing four subsequent times from 2005-2011), in which he plays Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees to Jimmy Fallon’s Barry Gibb. As Robin, he (rather humorously) seems incapable of communicating or expressing himself except through song.
But the SNL digital shorts—“Dick in a Box,” “Motherlover” (2009), and “Three Way (The Golden Rule)” (2011)—in particular showcase his comedic capabilities (JT created the shorts with the Lonely Island—a comedy troupe comprised of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer that has frequently written for SNL since 2005—Asa Taccone, and SNL associate music director Katreese Barnes). Although these shorts are hilarious for a variety of reasons, one of the funniest things about them is that JT and Samberg look ridiculous and sing about the ridiculous but sound so damn serious and invested in the subject matter. “Dick in a Box,” for example, is about two guys who decide the best gift they can give their “girls” for Christmas is literally their gift wrapped penises. The absurd concept is itself comical but it’s rendered even more humorous by the fact that JT and Samberg sport suits, sunglasses, gold chains, and facial hair reminiscent of the late ’80s. On top of that, they act as though they’ve concocted an “extraordinary” gift idea and explain how to replicate it: “(Samberg) So all you fellas out there with ladies to impress, it’s easy to do, just follow these steps: One, (JT) cut a hole in the box. Two, put your junk in that box. Three, make her open the box, (both) and that’s the way you do it.” As these steps are so simplistic, it’s unnecessary for them to provide this explanation; but the characters they play think it is, that it’s a genius, revolutionary gift that needs elaboration.
Playing the same characters in “Motherlover” as they did in “Dick in a Box,” JT and Samberg decide that for Mother’s Day, “We should fuck each other’s mothers, fuck each other’s moms!” They think doing so would show their moms “how much they really mean.” It’s hilarious to think that seduction translates to genuine affection and the highest level of thoughtfulness. As JT sings, “We are so cool and thoughtful.” Like their “dick in a box” idea, they think “motherlover” is also ingenious. They deem it “The second best idea that we’ve ever had” (their best idea being “dick in a box”) and believe “This is the perfect plan, for a perfect Mother’s Day. They’ll have to rename this one all up under the covers day.” The fact that they say people will have to rename Mother’s Day indicates they think “motherlover” is such a revolutionary idea that it will become a tradition. And the nonchalant attitude with which they express vulgarity makes the whole song even funnier. Rather than using standard euphemisms such as “sleep with” or even simply saying “have sex,” they express themselves in the crassest way possible—essentially, “I’m gonna fuck your mom,” which is highly offensive yet doesn’t even remotely phase these characters.
The fact that JT helped write and create these videos lends him credibility and reinforces both his comedic and musical talent. In 2007, “Dick in a Box” earned him, along with the Lonely Island, an Emmy for “Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics.” He won another Emmy in 2009 for “Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series” for hosting SNL that year. He won this same Emmy award in 2011 for his appearance on SNL’s season finale in May 2011, and shared another Emmy for co-writing the original song for his opening monologue (rollingstone.com).
On July 20, 2011, Conan O’Brien discussed these shorts with JT, commenting that they’ve become a cultural phenomenon. JT said, “Apparently, if you can be a crass human being and put it in a moderately memorable melody in a song, you can be nominated for an Emmy, America.” This remark demonstrates self-awareness and even a level of self-deprecation, which make JT more likable. Pretty much every time I see him in interviews, JT comes across as humorous, down-to-earth, warm, and charismatic. He seems like a guy I’d want to hang out with. For example, during his July 20, 2011, appearance on Regis and Kelly, he and Regis played a competitive game of ping pong after Regis had brought up the fact that Justin used to play it while on The All New Mickey Mouse Club (1993-1995). And earlier in the show, he’d told Regis his dream is to juggle both music and acting in a way that feels authentic to himself. “That’s all I’ve ever tried to do, is if you’re inspired to do something, to sort of invest in the actual process of it and learn about it as you’re going.” So right there, we see a very genuine, earnest human being who honestly does throw himself into his work and tries to do the best job that he can while remaining authentic.
With his acting career rapidly developing, we see the hard work that JT puts into his roles and that his talent extends beyond music and comedy. Of course, he delivered a respectable performance as Napster co-founder Sean Parker in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010). He also delivered a strong performance in Will Gluck’s Friends with Benefits (2011) (which puts a nice twist on the romantic comedy genre) as the funny, endearing Dylan Harper. However, many people didn’t seem as crazy about In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011), and some even discredited JT’s acting for his role in this film. Indeed, of the four people with whom I saw this film, I was the only one who remotely enjoyed it. They criticized the film largely because of its weak dialogue and the fact that an interesting concept (time equals currency) that could’ve been compelling was reduced to something hackneyed and underwhelming. While I can see and even agree with their arguments, I still found the film’s action and the sexual tension between JT and Amanda Seyfried engaging. Hackneyed script or not, I don’t think In Time discredits JT as an actor at all. He may have delivered some cheesy lines (related to puns about time), but that doesn’t mean that he delivered them unconvincingly or in any other way one might construe as negative.
The film Alpha Dog, in which JT delivers one of his most compelling performances, really showcases his acting ability. JT plays Frankie Ballenbacher, second-hand man of drug dealer Johnny Truelove who mixes Frankie up in a hostage situation. What’s particularly remarkable about JT’s acting in this film is that he manages to be simultaneously likeable and despicable. Johnny, essentially the “Alpha Dog” of the group, forces Frankie to keep an eye on their fifteen-year-old hostage, Zach. As Frankie takes Zach under his wing, offering kindness, support, and even friendship to the kidnapped teen, we feel warmth towards Frankie. We even see Frankie morally struggle with the kidnapping, and at one point, Frankie tells Zach he’ll give him money to get on a bus and go home and that he’ll tell the others Zach ran away (oddly, Zach is a willing hostage and turns down his chance at freedom).
Although Frankie often seems well-intentioned and reasonable, reprehensible behavior intersperses his kindness. For example, he makes homophobic remarks at the beginning of the film, accusing their friend Elvis of being gay and subsequently insisting Elvis get away from him. And when they initially snatch Zach, Frankie participates in beating up the kid. Most disturbingly, he takes part in the murder of Zach. When Frankie finds out about the murder plot, he still has an opportunity to save Zach. His eyes, demeanor, and verbalized horror show us that he desperately wants to, that he cares for Zach, and even if he didn’t care for him, that he recognizes that this is an innocent kid who doesn’t deserve to die or even be held hostage, and ultimately that he recognizes how fucked up the situation is. Yet, he’s terrified. He’s terrified to allow Elvis to murder Zach and subsequently be an accessory to the murder, but he’s also terrified to save him. Frankie is weak—he has integrity but has difficulty standing up for his moral convictions—and is evidently easily manipulated. Elvis leads him to believe that murdering Zach is their only option—that if they don’t do it, they’ll not only be imprisoned for kidnapping and ransom, but Johnny will also be after Frankie. JT effectively conveys this internal struggle—his eyes tearing up and his voice quavering as he wraps duct tape around Zach’s wrists. Even then, I still sympathize with Frankie, and that shows how effectively JT pulls off his role.
JT’s next role will most likely be in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), a film focusing on New York’s 1960s folk music scene (blogonthebox.com). JT will play an aspiring folk singer—which will give him the opportunity to blend his love and talent for both music and acting. Considering the Coen brothers’ popularity, the fact that they offered JT a leading role in one of their films is a big deal. Clearly, they must recognize JT’s credibility and that he continues to improve as an actor and entertainer. JT has proven himself to be a versatile, hard-working, gifted individual through his musical talent, his excellent work on SNL, and his burgeoning acting career, and I have full confidence that he will excel in the Coen brothers’ upcoming film.