Jesse Eisenberg currently has two movies in theaters, one of them reportedly good (The End of the Tour), one of them not so good (American Ultra). However, I couldn’t care less about either because life is too short to watch Jesse Eisenberg movies anymore. Back when he was first cast as the new Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman, my initial reaction was of extreme annoyance. Not just because Eisenberg didn’t match my vision of the character (although I’ve since explained why he’s actually an interesting choice for the role) but also because I’ve kind of unintentionally conflated him with his dickish characters in Social Network and Now You See Me. As such, I now have a mental block against anything Jesse Eisenberg does.
Once upon a time, I watched Eisenberg when he was just a teenager in the short-lived Fox drama Get Real (1999-2000). He was my favorite part of the show even though it also starred a young Anne Hatheway and Eric Christian Olsen. A decade after that, I saw him again in Adventureland (2009), in which he plays a pretentious recent college grad whose unexpected financial problems force him to abandon plans to travel through Europe and instead take a job at a run-down amusement park. His character is essentially, as Flavorwrite put it, “A stuttering sophisticate just trying to overcome his own neuroses in time to figure himself out and get the girl.” He pulls it off like a young Woody Allen, and the movie’s critical reputation seems to have grown in the years since its release.
Later in 2009, I saw Eisenberg in Zombieland in which he plays, well, a “stuttering sophisticate just trying to overcome his own neuroses in time to figure himself out and get the girl.” In this case, the girl is Emma Stone (in Adventureland it’s Kristen Stewart), and the backdrop just happens to be the zombie apocalypse. It’s a film fully worthy of its status as a modern cult classic, but Eisenberg was far from my favorite part. The same was true of Adventureland where I was more drawn to the supporting performances from Ryan Reynolds as the lecherous boss and Martin Starr as the sardonic best friend. In Zombieland, even though Eisenberg is the ostensible lead character, providing first-person narration throughout, the parts I remember are Woody Harrelson’s love of twinkies and [spoiler alert] the live action Ghostbusters role-playing during Bill Murray’s surprise cameo as himself.
Then The Social Network happened. Eisenberg plays Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as such a genuinely terrible human being that the movie’s screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, reluctantly offered a “I’m sorry if you’re feelings were hurt” apology to Zuckerberg, which is about all the apology you’ll ever get from Aaron Sorkin. Eisenberg’s performance earned him multiple acting nominations which meant lots of shots of him in the crowd at the various awards shows (Golden Globes, Oscars, SAG, etc.) looking oddly smug, very much like a pretentious actor who’d rather be anywhere else. You could have joked (and many did) that he was simply still in character as Mark Zuckerberg. It’s only looking back on it now that I can pinpoint that as the moment I conflated the actor with the part.
By the time Now You See Me arrived in 2013, it was remarkably too easy to see it as Eisenberg playing Zuckberg as a magician. The comparison was inevitable when the trailers highlighted an interrogation sequence in which Eisenberg displayed his Zuckerberg-esque douchebag charm (or anti-charm), just instead of being an asshole during a legal deposition he was making a fool of Mark Ruffalo while easily getting out of a pair of handcuffs. Whereas Eisenberg used to play the stuttering, neurotic nebbish Woody Allen-types the new phase of his career saw him typecast as the annoying arrogant jerk whose every line is cause for a good punch to the mouth.
However, if Eisenberg looked uncomfortable stuffed into awards show crowds for Social Network it’s probably just because he genuinely was uncomfortable. As he told Junkee.com when promoting Now You See Me, he’s not exactly an extroverted guy, “With my family I probably don’t shut up, but if I don’t know the people I probably wouldn’t talk at all. It’s also a very different thing, performing versus being. A lot of actors I know are the shyest people, but for some reason they come alive when they need to. I feel the same way.”
I should relate to that. I would feel equally uncomfortable in a crowd full of people I don’t know. Yet for a lot of people, knowing that Eisenberg is a bit socially awkward actually retroactively weakens his reputation as an actor, kind of like, “So, is he just playing himself in all of his movies?” His Junkee interviewer, Rob Moran, even observed:
Woah, and I thought I was a nervous dude. In real life, Jesse Eisenberg is as endearingly jittery as you’d expect from his perennially hunched over film protagonists. He talks in quick, clipped sentences, his hands shaking like Ali. At one point during our interview, he even got up and started pacing the room. I don’t know how this guy gets out of bed in the morning, let alone stars in Hollywood blockbusters.
Take out the part where Moran referred to Eisenberg’s quirks as “endearing,” and that sounds about how you’d expect Eisenberg to seem in real life based off of his movies.
Actually, there’s way more to that than I realized.
Eisenberg received loads of bad press in 2013 for treating a Now You See Me press junket interviewer exactly the way you’d expect a Jesse Eisenberg character to treat someone they feel smarter than. The target of his supposed derision was Univision/ABC reporter Romina Puga, who blogged about her experience on her Tumblr page, indicating she was “humiliated by” Eisenberg and “just wanted to go cry.” That was the perfect recipe for click-baiting headlines like “Jessie Eisenberg almost makes female interviewer cry,” although having just viewed the interview for the first time while researching for this article I have to say I don’t think either Eisenberg or Puga comes off particularly well, him admittedly worse than her:
On paper, it seems inherently mean for Eisenberg to ask Puga if she knows who Carrot Top is, and then to say “You’re the Carrot Top of interviewers” after she indicates she has heard of Carrot Top and thinks he’s the worst. However, in the context of the interview it’s possibly less mean than it is simply awkward. He seems like he’s just trying to say she’s a “prop interviewer” the way Carrot Top is a “prop comedian,” referring to her choice to give him a set of cards to play with. Plus, he does at least play along and do the card trick even though by that point she’s given him as much hostility as he’s given her.
For his part, Eisenberg thought the whole thing was blown out of proportion, telling Junkee he wasn’t even aware of the controversy which erupted because he doesn’t pay attention to what people write about him on the internet:
The first movie I did, I was like 19 and I looked myself up online and somebody wrote the meanest thing that anybody’s ever said to me. It was mortifying, and so I just learned not to do that again. I mean, it’s not unique to actors either; it’s just the way media is now. Everybody has something awful written about themselves. My sister’s in college now and there’s a website where you can discuss professors online, and people just say merciless things about college professors. And my dad’s a college professor, so I’m sensitive to this kinda thing. People just say awful things for their own personal agendas.
In that same interview, they discussed his love of basketball and doing plays as well as the fact that he’s actually a writer with multiple published works. He actually comes off like a fairly decent guy, albeit a bit awkward at times.
But is he even a good actor? It seems insane to suggest otherwise considering he has an Oscar nomination, but it occurs to me that if you look at the pictures I’ve included in this article he’s wearing nearly the same facial expression in all of them except for the one from Adventureland. Of course, I’m the one who selected the photos, and I could be tailoring them to match my point. However, I truly did pick them at random, and only noticed the facial expression thing while editing my first draft of this article. It caused me to think back on the movies I’ve seen him in and conclude that he seems to have a somewhat limited set of tools he works with in terms of what he does with his face as an actor, although he does use them to perfection in the right movie. But that’s not really fair to say because I’ve never seen some of his more critically acclaimed work like Roger Dodger and The Double. I also haven’t even see his voice over work at play in the family films Rio and Rio 2.
I might be more inclined to question his acting skills at this very moment simply because I’m one of those people who find his every self-serious moment in the Batman v Superman trailer (especially the “The red capes are coming. The red capes are coming” line) to be unintentionally hilarious; others find him to be chilling and brilliant.
Ultimately, it should not matter what kind of person Eisenberg is. It’s not the content of his character but the caliber of his performances. Who cares if he foolishly compared his Comic-Con experience to some kind of genocide “screamed at by thousands of people”? ScreenCrush joked, “If he wanted to be hated by fanboys, there are few more effective ways to do it that comparing their favorite time of year to the sadistic slaughter of large amounts of people.” That shouldn’t impact his performance as Lex Luthor in the movie. However, I have reached a stage where I don’t seem to like any of the characters Jesse Eisenberg plays, even when he slums it and tries to play a stoner idiot in the regrettable comedy 30 Minutes or Less. Maybe I’m not so much conflating the man with the character as I am associating Eisenberg with movies I wasn’t overly fond of (30 Minutes or Less, To Rome With Love, Now You See Me).
I am reminded of an episode of Seinfeld where the gang all sit down to watch an episode of Melrose Place. As the catchy opening theme song of the 90s soap oprea blares from the TV, the usually mellow Jerry surprisingly declares his hatred for one of the show’s characters, “Oh, that Michael. I hate him. He’s just so smug.” In the soap opera of real life, that’s how I react every time I see Jesse Eisenberg, and I know that’s not totally rational. He’s not an asshole; he’s just socially awkward. He’s not a bad actor; he’s just fallen prey to typecasting and made a couple of less-than-great movies. But I have a feeling that after Batman v Superman it’s going to be hard to want to see Eisenberg in anything ever again.
What about you? Are you actually a huge Eisenberg fan? If so, um, sorry. Are you kind of with me? Or do you think it’s silly to let any notion of what an actor is like in real life to influence what you think of their performance? Do you think Eisenberg is the best actor of this or any generation, and you will not stand for any fool who suggests otherwise? Get thee to the comments!