A computer screen hums in front of me, bleary Twitter updates rolling up in mechanical euphoria as comedians, journalists, politicians, Bill Nye The Science Guy do their best to burn through the noise in 140 characters or less. I’m jammed in a maze of engineers. The basement of the UGLi sits in whispered silence, so quiet you can almost reach out and touch the blanket of dejected boredom settling over our heads, filling labored gaps between the clacking of keys. And then it happens.
At first there’s just a single, errant cry screeching itself into existence from a faraway corner. There’s no way to nail down the source, but it seems to be cracking through the bathrooms 100 feet away. The camera quickly pans left to reveal a young woman staring dead-faced at her laptop monitor, her mouth circling around a comically perfect O. As the screaming dominoes across the basement, ever so slowly, the camera turns back to the computer screen in front of me. Twitter updates storm upwards hundreds at a time. Madness wafts within the thousands of blipping hashtags. Ryan Gosling has given birth. Wait. No, Eva Mendes has given birth. Still a father — Ryan Gosling is still a father, though. Sigh.
Three weeks have lingered past since that lazy Friday afternoon I spent huddled in the basement of the UGLi. And in those three weeks, I’ve thought a lot about Papa Gos — what he’s accomplished in his 33 years on earth, what his movies mean to me and what they may mean, years down the line, to his baby girl. So for those of you here for my typically bullshit cinematic analysis — with its typically gripping scene dissection and typically discerning dialogue discourse — be warned: This column is about Ryan Gosling. Nothing more, nothing less.
It would be wrong to say I stumbled across the Gos. He was thrust upon me, thrown at me by adoring teenage girls in that deluge of hysteria surrounding “The Notebook.” Being 11 at the time of its release, I could never really grasp what all the fuss was about. I remember sitting there, dumbfounded by how perfectly reasonable people could throw up their arms in such enamored glee whenever this nameless, bearded man experienced the equivalent of a wet t-shirt contest. Thoughts like ‘this is so fucking stupid’ flitted around my head in neon letters, but an hour or so into the movie, that nameless bearded man, whoever he was, had me. He had me right where I fucking sat.
In classic Nicholas Sparks fashion, the scene itself is written with a generous dollop of melodramatic gloop heaped onto each line, seeping through every performance — yet, somehow, Gosling owns it. As he tries to shame Rachel McAdams’s character into giving their relationship a legitimate chance, his face locks away behind hard lines of anger and disgust. McAdams looks cowed, detached from her material. And at first, this contrast in style makes Gosling’s more phony choices — kicking a porch chair in rage, throwing his hands up in blatant indignation — seem even phonier.
Then there’s a moment, two minutes along the clip, where we get nothing more than a closeup of the actor’s face as he blocks McAdams from her car, refusing to let her leave, his eyes teetering between composure and convulsion. He hates this woman he loves so much; this woman who loves him; this woman who abandoned him for a richer, better man; this woman who once dangled happiness in front of him, now insistent on yanking him back to the listless anguish we’ve been witnessing for the past half hour. He still loves her.
It’s a powerful piece of performance that McAdams, the director and the editor all wisely use as a defining point in addressing their own roles. McAdams softens almost immediately, a transformation we cut to and from for the better part of a minute as the conversation bounces between two people laying everything out on the table. Until, finally, the camera settles on a two-shot of both leads occupying opposite sides of the frame — defeated, dejected, though for once, equally aware of each other’s pain.
I don’t usually use the term “methodical” when describing “The Notebook.” But this is clean, methodical filmmaking at its best. It hinges completely on Gosling’s portrayal, and he more than delivers.
While it may not be the role he typically gravitates toward, flashes of brilliance still come when script gives him free reign to dictate narrative and director gives him free reign to dictate scene. He excels in the films which accommodate pared down stories in lieu of bloated ensemble casts. He’d never do well in a Paul Thomas Anderson production — or for that matter, any other movie which requires a mess of grinding gears, storylines, subplots to function. For proof, look no further than “Gangster Squad,” a film nowhere close in caliber to anything on P.T. Anderson’s resume, but one that buries Gosling in the same ways an Anderson feature would: beneath an avalanche of memorable characters — all with something meaningful to say — who fit together like puzzle pieces in the writer/director’s grander vision.
There’s no wiggle room for him to really grab hold of our attention, use it to pick up momentum the way he does in the scene from “The Notebook.” In this sense, the Gosling films which click as effectively as they do, do so because they stick to the recognizable mold of letting the actor transform on screen, in front of our eyes, without leaving the frame.
In his first really significant film, “The Believer,” Gosling plays a teenager who, despite being Jewish, adopts a violent neo-Nazi ideology. The movie’s first scene shows him stalking after a Jewish man walking toward the camera. He beats him into submission, chiding him to fight back. When there’s no response, the camera drifts to a close up of Gosling’s eyes. Unflinching and unblinking, he moves toward us. It’s an interesting choice by the director, to frame this evil, obviously flawed character in the exact same position as his victim moments before. And it works because of those predatory, haunting eyes — the way they bridge the gap from hunted to hunter — a transformative theme which pops up multiple times throughout the film.
Gosling’s performance bleeds into every aspect of the movie, and though there are many distracting instances of lofty melodrama, he’s able to ground his emotions with a shockingly well-realized sense of tangibility. It’s this tangibility that’s pulls us into films like “Half Nelson,” “The Place Beyond The Pines” and to a certain degree “Crazy, Stupid Love.” “Drive” is an amalgamation of those principles on steroids. There’s barely a single line uttered by Gosling, just, by turns wounded looks toward the camera and heated pauses of fiery silence.
All of these examples fall in line with a body of work that cries out “natural actor,” and in every sense of the word, (beyond all the memes) that’s what Gosling is: a natural actor. So enjoy your daughter, Ryan. I know you’ve promised you’ll contemplate retiring from show-biz after becoming a father, but if there’s anything your time on screen tells us, it’s that you were for born this — to stand in front of a camera, that magical space, and become someone else. And maybe take us along for the ride.
Akshay Seth can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @NotAkshaySeth