Every now and then, those of us who write about the entertainment industry like to declare someone "the next big thing." It's very exciting, because it's almost like we're peering into the future and announcing that THIS person or THAT person, currently only mildly famous, is about to become HUGE. The fact that we are wrong about 95 percent of the time in no way diminishes the fun of it.
The latest person that we've been wrong about is Dane Cook, the screeching, loose-limbed stand-up comedian. A few years ago, his star was on the rise. His 1998 appearance on Comedy Central's Premium Blend was a hit, and his 2000 solo special on Comedy Central Presents soon became the channel's most popular.
I remember seeing one of his TV appearances in a hotel in St. George, Utah, and weeping with laughter. (This replaced the weeping I was already doing as the natural consequence of being in St. George, Utah.) The Comedy Central Presents special was funny, too. Friends in L.A. saw him perform live at a club there and raved about how brilliant he was. I was not ashamed to consider myself a Dane Cook fan in those days.
Like most comedians, Cook wanted to parlay this success into a film career, and the prospects were high. He was young, energetic, good-looking (in a poor-man's-Ryan-Reynolds sort of way), and he had a devoted fan base spanning both genders. He started to play small roles, mostly in forgettable movies like Stuck on You and Torque, working his way up to a major starring role.
It didn't come until 2006, when he played the lead in Employee of the Month, a comedy co-starring Dax Shepard and Jessica Simpson that was terrible as only a movie co-starring Dax Shepard and Jessica Simpson can be. The film wasn't a financial failure -- it recouped its $12 million budget -- but with a domestic gross of only $28 million, it wasn't the breakout hit Cook was hoping for, either.
And why wasn't it a hit? Being terrible didn't help, of course, but that alone shouldn't have been sufficient cause to sink it. (Did you see the box office grosses on Wild Hogs?) No, the problem was that by late 2006, when Employee of the Month was released, Dane Cook had begun to suffer a well-deserved backlash. Many people, myself included, had begun to notice that his act was growing stale. He had gotten lazy and complacent, allowing his performances to be overwhelmed by physical shtick and verbal tics rather than actual jokes. And when he did use actual jokes, they were often stolen from other comedians (including Louis C.K., Emo Philips, and Joe Rogan) -- an unpardonable sin in the comedy industry.
What's more, his off-stage reputation was that of an arrogant, difficult douchebag. You can get away with being a jerk in real life if your performances are great, or you can get away with being a mediocre performer if everyone loves you offstage. But generally speaking, you can't be a hack AND a jerk and last very long.
Cook's next starring vehicle, Good Luck Chuck, was abysmal, and his new one, My Best Friend's Girl, looks even worse. It's opening this Friday without being screened for critics, which almost always means the film is no good. With all these strikes against him, I wonder if My Best Friend's Girl will be Cook's last chance.
There is still hope for him, though -- not as a comic lead (that shipped has sailed), but as a supporting character. He did well enough in the dramatic Mr. Brooks and Dan in Real Life. His acting skills, while certainly nothing special, are good enough to get by, and if a filmmaker will harness his smugness and arrogance into a role where it's appropriate, it could work for him.
But please: No more starring roles in comedies. Unless My Best Friend's Girl turns out to be super-duper-awesome -- and I do not recommend the holding of one's breath for that -- Dane Cook needs to do something else for a while. Maybe he just needs to fade into oblivion for 20 years before his inevitable kitsch-fueled comeback, like the Coreys.
* * * * *
Eric D. Snider has a website that never yells its punch lines at you.