From the first time he caught our eye, as “Sack” Lodge, the Ivy League jerk engaged to Rachel McAdams in Wedding Crashers (2005), Bradley Cooper seemed too good-looking for his own good. Between the hubris-eating grin and the laser intensity of those blue eyes, he was all too convincing as a football-mad frat boy gloating over his superior genes. Since then, Cooper has gone on to play more likeable men—most famously, Phil, the alpha male leading the blackout brigade of losers in the two Hangover comedies, which have grossed $2 billion. And last year he was annointed People’s sexiest man alive. Neither that dubious honour nor the Hangover windfall have done much to burnish Cooper’s image as a serious actor. But lately he has seemed bent on changing that.
For a Hollywood hunk, playing a freak of nature may seem like a stretch, but this month the 37-year-old actor fulfilled a childhood dream—and completed his Actor’s Studio Drama School master’s thesis for New York University—by starring in an acclaimed stage production of David Merrick’s The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. (When he was 12, Cooper’s father gave him a video of David Lynch’s film of the play: it made him weep.) “I felt such a connection,” he told
The New Yorker. “Like, no one’s skull is symmetrical. Mine is all over the place . . . and my one hip’s higher than the other.”
While Cooper may have a hard time convincing the world that he’s deformed, he never seems entirely on the level. He exudes confidence with a megawatt charm that doesn’t exactly inspire trust. Which is what makes him such an intriguing screen presence. And as he expands his range in a prolific string of movie roles, he seems determined to scuff up his image. In the car-chase action comedy Hit and Run, which opened last week, Cooper is almost unrecognizable as a nasty, blond-dreadlocked gangster on a mission of vengeance. And in The Words, opening next week, he stars as a struggling writer who becomes a bestselling author after stumbling across a lost manuscript and taking credit for a novel he didn’t write.
This rising star who has won the Hollywood lottery shows an aptitude for playing imposters who luck out with a performance-enhanced edge. In Limitless—a sleek thriller that was one of last year’s most underrated movies—he portrayed another failed writer who cheats his way to the top—rising from deadbeat to master of the universe after stumbling onto an illicit superdrug that turbocharges his brain. Intelligence is hard to fake, even for a good actor. But like Robert Downey Jr., Cooper plays the smartest guy in the room as if to the Mensa manor born.
His choices are erratic. From dishing up campy menace amid the hokum of Hit and Run to running a minefield of earnest clichés in The Words, Cooper is capable of squandering his talent while remaining eminently watchable. Neither film will do much for his reputation. But both show he’s an actor more interested in taking chances than polishing his movie star persona.
Meanwhile, Cooper is stepping up his career in two heavily buzzed fall movies premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival. In Silver Linings Playbook, he rejoins Robert De Niro, his co-star in Limitless, to portray a schoolteacher who returns to his family home after an eight-month spell in a mental institution. Directed by David O. Russell (The Fighter) and produced by the Weinstein Co., this high-pedigree comedy may yield the respect that has eluded Cooper so far.
Also premiering at TIFF is The Place Beyond the Pines, in which Cooper takes on Ryan Gosling. Reuniting with Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance, Gosling stars as a motorcycle stunt driver who turns to crime (shades of Drive on two wheels), while Cooper serves as his antagonist, a cop-turned-politician. Sounds like a promising collision between two designated dreamboats who like to steer their intensity to the dark side. But Cooper, who is now filming Hangover 3 for a reported $15 million, is not about to ditch the trashy franchise that made him famous. He may be a serious actor, but he’s not stupid.