In niche casting news on par with that brief era when Jodie Foster couldn’t stop making movies where she was trapped in very small spaces, this week marks the third time in 10 years that Rachel McAdams has played the serene and supportive love interest to a man whose hobbies include the ability to weave and unweave the threads of time and space. Most recently, she’s playing the ex-girlfriend in Marvel’s Doctor Strange; on the last go-around, she was the trophy of time-travel dramedy About Time; and the first time she found herself in this predicament, she was starring in The Time Traveler’s Wife. For an actress who was once tapped as one of her age group’s most promising performers, the last decade has been a vicious loop of repeated disappointment. It’s nice to have Benedict Cumberbatch help out at the hospital, but where is the sorcerer to save Rachel McAdams from her own career?
If movie stardom were somehow a construct defined solely by what you did in the years 2004 and 2005, there would be no bigger movie star than Rachel McAdams. In just two years, McAdams had solidified her place as the inheritor to the throne of endearingly headstrong leading ladies with roles in Mean Girls, The Notebook, the Canadian Shakespeare show Slings and Arrows, Wedding Crashers, Red Eye, and The Family Stone ... which she mysteriously followed with a year-long hiatus from acting, and things have never been the same. I’m fond of the McGosling truthers who believe blind items speculating McAdams left America for Canada to have former boyfriend Ryan Gosling’s secret love child, but unfortunately, I’m doomed to remember that McAdams spent her off-time running a Canadian environmental website with a friend called Green Is Sexy that I side-eyed even as a preteen. Since her return from the land of free health care, each new movie has promised a return to her former glory, and each new movie has disappointed. Still, they never do badly enough to stop the next project from coming.
McAdams is the kind of actress who would have thrived in the 1990s, when studio dramas were plenty and rom-coms weren’t hot garbage. If McAdams was an Elisabeth Shue for the aughts, the collapse of the mid-budget film means there are neither Soapdishes nor Leaving Las Vegases to support a sustainable career for her in 2016. The actresses who have thrived among McAdams’s peers are the ones who have adjusted to the new norms of the industry’s financing structure. At the top of the industry are television regulars like Elisabeth Moss who make films between long-term engagements with prestige television gigs, auteur-seekers like Rooney Mara who place primacy on the independence and individuality of their collaborators, or studio stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Emily Blunt who have diversified their portfolios with big-budget action films and science fiction.
McAdams has recently begun to adapt herself to what’s available, but without the clear trajectory that can come from being on a hot streak like the one she had in the mid-aughts, the result is that her choices feel haphazard. She’ll take a dead-eyed girlfriend role in Sherlock Holmes and follow it up with a stellar performance in a Brian De Palma thriller that 12 people watch and 11 people hate, leaving the remaining one person to write the inevitable think piece. She’ll throw a Hail Mary and work with both Richard Curtis and Cameron Crowe, but a good 15 years after they were making hits like Notting Hill or Almost Famous. She’ll make a movie with current indie hero and Little Men director Ira Sachs ... in 2007, before he really understood what kind of movies he wanted to be making. She’ll star in a Terrence Malick movie and avoid the Adrien Brody cutting-room floor, but the movie winds up being To the Wonder and not The Tree of Life, the one no one watches, not even when it seems like it’s the only movie left on Netflix. She’ll make it on to the hottest Emmy-winning HBO show, and it turns out she’s found herself headlining the disastrous (delightful) second season of True Detective. McAdams even somehow managed to land a role in last year’s Best Picture winner, the Boston Globe investigation drama Spotlight, earning herself her first Oscar nomination for a role mostly spent listening empathetically to monologues given by her showier co-stars. Finally, McAdams was able to give a good performance in a movie that was well-received by critics and audiences, but Spotlight is an ensemble picture, not her movie, and so the cycle of her never-ending comeback narrative resets yet again.
But here’s the thing: McAdams is never bad in any of the middling movies she stars in, and most of the projects she chooses are solid bets on paper. She’s had good directors, good distribution, good exposure, good scripts, but McAdams’s career is proof that there’s no planning for a hit, even for people who have access to the top of the industry. Rather than filming rom-coms, McAdams has found herself trapped in a rom-com’s first act. She’s forever swiping right, forever hoping the next date will be the one.