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Akshay Seth: Coming Up Roses

Universal Pictures

By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published May 14, 2014

There’s something irritating about watching Rose Byrne step in front of the camera. She holds herself quietly, just off the side of the frame, murmurs, looking at the script, exhales a quick last word and, without any seeming thought or meditation, slides into the light. There’s no evident transformation — the same nuanced restraint masks her face so, visibly, only the melancholy eyes widen, flattening against those delicate, sad features, windowing the layers of thought behind every motion.

It’s just all too fucking subtle.

She’s still looking sad. Correction: She’s always looking sad, yet somehow, it becomes an advantage. The physical contrast between her tone and features dictates the scene, and even though we never see any of the gears whirring into motion — say, the way we would while watching Leonardo DiCaprio, through sheer frenetics, take hold of an audience and transform himself within a few minutes on screen — the effect still reverberates. She works in a state of stasis: a state of stasis that frustratingly, audiences can find easy to overlook. But more impressive still? Byrne is able to pull it off for virtually any part, to the point that she’s conceivably the only actress in Hollywood at the moment who can’t be categorically pigeonholed into a specific niche or role.

Like many other Australian actresses working in Hollywood, Byrne got her start in the country’s small yet robust film industry, playing the usual slate of sidelined bit characters in dialogue-heavy indie dramas. But she chose her roles carefully, making apparent from the get-go her interest in pursuing movies buoyed by defined platforms for their female leads. Those pursuits culminated in “The Goddess of 1967,” an honorable mention in Akshay’s Five Fave Flicks (AFFF©), and the project that gave Byrne the break she needed to make a transition from Australian to American cinema.

In the film, Byrne is blind — reaching, groping in darkness, playing an emotionally damaged woman who, “for the fuck of it,” helps a Japanese car collector track down a 1967 model Citroen DS, affectionately called the Goddess. The narrative is weaved together through a collection of flashbacks illuminating the two leads’ tortured pasts, though it’s Byrne’s stranglehold on viewers that makes the film memorable. It’s a haunting performance — an ode to disability’s search for familiarity.

There’s a scene in the movie, one of the most memorable pieces of acting I’ve ever seen captured on film: an arresting sequence in which Byrne’s character asks her companion to teach her how to dance. As the catchy, ’60s euphony of thrumming guitars gradually begins to surround our two protagonists, Byrne’s eyes remain locked in darkness. She flails, flounders, lurches her hips, her fingers grasping wildly in the air. Everything about her movements suggest violence, but then something amazing happens. She feels her partner’s guidance, and ever so slowly, her own actions soften, becoming defined, alive. The eyes are still locked on nothingness, but again, that contrast is at work. A smile curves underneath the dead stare, and about 90 seconds in, for the first time in the film, Byrne flashes us a glimmering shot of freedom. It’s a moment of striking humanity, reminiscent of the unique power this medium can incite, and if you’re not beaming, squealing some variation of “damn you, Rose” by the time the scene cuts away, you should probably stop reading this column.

It’s good shit. Of course, only the first impressive entry in Byrne’s imposing résumé — a résumé that includes a five-season supporting turn next to Glenn Close in the lauded FX/DirecTV legal thriller “Damages.” The show, which went off air in 2012, is memorable for a variety of reasons, most in some way stemming from that quiet predatory ferocity in Close’s portrayal. Yet, it’s Byrne’s depiction of Ellen Parsons that draws viewers in, the lens of naivety through which we get a glimpse at the guarded inner workings of this otherwise detached, exclusive world. As the series progresses, as Parsons transforms from yuppie law school graduate to ruthless, manipulative attorney, Byrne keeps us watching by steadily dialing up the pressure, restraining it, and toward the final seasons, letting it mold her into the antihero we see in Close.

It would be easy to say how,in many ways, that transformative arc is a little bit representative of the swerving career shift Byrne engineered for herself. But I’ll say it anyways. “Damages” was a critical and commercial success, often marketed as ‘the most intriguing female relationship on TV.’ After over a decade of appearing in similar, traditionally dramatic fare — you know, the type of work that gets you Oscars and Emmys (she got two nods for her portrayal of Parsons) — the actress chose to try her hand at comedy.

The decision stood in stark contrast to the Hollywood norm, filled with comedic actors trying to break into predictable Oscar-bait after making a name in lighter roles. Still, the projects Byrne undertook were different. Unlike a lot of female leads in Judd Apatow man-child comedies, she opted for parts that shoved her next to Russell Brand and Seth Rogen, if not on equal footing, then at least with a chance to flex a developing comedic voice.

She was one of the highlights of “Bridesmaids,” playing the arrogant socialite to Kristen Wiig’s more bro-ish protagonist. The composure she brought to the character, coupled with an understated, soft-spoken sense of timing made her a perfect foil for the rest of the cast’s shit-slinging, physical approach to humor. There’s a certain depth required in being able to come off as devious, cunning yet still somehow funny — especially while trying to hold your against the likes of expectedly hilarious Wiig and McCarthy — and Byrne nailed it.
In “Neighbors,” Byrne is thrust into the spotlight from the first scene, fighting, getting dirty, careful not to be relegated the Leah Remini to Rogen’s Kevin James. The film’s crux, after you get past the dick jokes and hellish, neon-blazed frat parties, is Byrne’s struggle to be given the same type of leeway dudes usually get in R-rated summer comedies.

Part of the reason these films have picked up steam over last few years is Judd Apatow and the brand of growing-up/men-pretending-to-be-teenagers humor he’s popularized with the help of the Rogen-Goldberg writing team. Most of those movies earned their laughs in the poop-smeared buildup to a usually disappointing resolution, with man-child X admitting to nagging girlfriend/wife Y that it’s about time ‘I accept my responsibilities as an adult and stop farting in my friends’ mouths.’ In “Neighbors,” it’s that same struggle to come to terms with age, but, for once, there’s no underlying expectation that the woman be sidelined, caricatured as the “responsible cop” wife.

Byrne is right there next to Rogen in every one of the film’s over-the-top, hilarious sequences, and by the time credits roll, there’s a distinct sense that both leads have developed or matured in the same ways. It’s a credit to Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s script, though the bulk of the applause should be saved for Byrne, who fights, acting the shit out of what could have been something so much more expectable.

If anything, Byrne’s work is a confirmation of her range as an actor, but more importantly, a necessary reminder that good acting can’t be shoehorned — no matter the gender roles.