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Ensemble Acting: Gimmick or Tour de Force?

Men, are your testosterone levels dipping to dangerously low levels? If so you have likely had the release of the new star-studded actioner The Expendables marked crudely on your beer-splattered Playboy calendar for some time now. Directed by and starring action icon Sylvester Stallone, this summer release promises to be a throwback to the campy, over-the-top rumbles of the past few decades.

In addition to the nostalgic qualities, The Expendables also features one of the most drool-inducing ensemble casts of recent memory including the likes of Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Randy Coture, Steven Austin, Terry Crews, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and “The Governator” himself Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This who’s-who of action stars giving one last hurrah represents the quintessential use of an ensemble cast; unpretentious, tongue-in-cheek and supporting a greater purpose than “hey look at all of us.” Though, many films in recent memory have shown far less ambitious uses of this technique, which ultimately asks the question: why go that direction at all?

 

The Gimmick

Bluntly put, ensemble casts are often used to mask inferior products and draw in audiences based on starpower alone. One genre is particularly guilty of this and that would be the waning brand of the romantic comedy. Just this year we saw the critically maligned film Valentine’s Day open to a whopping $56 million, the trailer for which showed absolutely no plot, merely briefly flashing the faces of the pretty cast. In this case, it is clear that the multitude of stars was merely a white-wash for the sloppy screenplay; a ploy which audiences soon learned (the film went on to gross less than double its opening weekend).

Films in a similar vein include Evening, Love Actually and Steel Magnolias, all of which received luke-warm reception at best but rode on a slew of name-stars all the same. Just last year He’s Just Not That Into You followed the very same trend not to mention employing the very same marketing campaign. It is never a good sign when a movie forgoes plot for glitter, so to speak.

A stark contrast to the main-stream fluff of Julia Roberts and company is the use of this technique as bait come time for the Academy Awards. This should come as no surprise, especially considering the fact that this ploy is usually successful in garnering buzz for a film, even if it ultimately goes home empty handed. Remember the 2006 Emilio Estevez film Bobby about the assassination of JFK? Me neither, and is one of the cases where this technique fails to capture the correct attention, a similar fate befell 2008’s Lions for Lambs. We need look no further however than Crash, JFK and The Big Chill to name a few to see why this technique continues to be utilized.

So where does the gimmick end and “prestige” picture begin, and if the film is exceptional regardless does it even matter how that success came about?

 

All in Good Time

Perusing what I would consider to be the best ensemble films, a trend immediately made itself apparent. Classic movies such as The Godfather, Godfather II, Apocalypse Now, The Goonies, Pulp Fiction and A Bridge Too Far gained notoriety for their exceptional casts years after their initial release. In a number of cases, the small, cameo-style roles in these movies would not be noticed as the jumping-off point for a future movie star until decades later.

Robert De Niro’s role in Godfather II was one of his very first, back when he was still being credited as Robert DeNiro. Harrison Ford had just broke into the mainstream in Star Wars two years prior when he starred in Apocalypse Now and for John Travolta, Pulp Fiction was a comeback role. When a film becomes an ensemble feature instead of being structured as such, it diminishes the criticism that star power was used merely as an attempt to mask poor quality.

 

The Spoof/Cameo

Particularly with comedies, ensemble casts tend to settle in the camp of parody or wacky cameos rather than overtly selling the film on a glut of famous actors. Films like Anchorman, Mars Attacks! and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back use ensemble acting as the imbedded fabric of the comedy, not awkwardly dividing the comedy equally amongst a flood of name actors.

Comedians are more “of the moment” than any actors in any other genre. One day an actor will be confined to stand-up and the next they will be headlining a major Hollywood production. Likewise, they can easily become yesterday’s news (what was the last thing you saw Dane Cook in?). My point being that it may seem like there are a whole spread of comedians in a particular film but is partly a by-product of this finicky genre.

There are most certainly instances where a cast is doused in big stars to beef up an unfunny screenplay. Grown Ups starring Adam Sandler showed us just that and Rat Race did it as far back as eight years ago. But like the romantic comedy genre, audiences may be drawn in with the promise of laughs but usually find out that they are just props for slapstick.

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The Man with the Camera

Like shooting in black and white, collaborating with the same actor or favoring a multi-thread narrative, sometimes ensemble casts are simply the style of a particular director. The most famous of these would Quentin Tarantino as every film he has directed, especially Pulp Fiction, has boasted any number of excellent actors.

What Tarantino seems to have a knack for is structuring his films in such a way as to highlight everyone’s individual talents while managing to keep one fluid narrative. His style of converging storylines compliments his use of ensemble casts and even projects he did not direct, but was still involved with (Sin City and True Romance) carry this unique style.

Francis Ford Coppola is another notable example of incorporating grand casts into a more intimate product from “The Godfather” trilogy, to Apocalypse Now to a movie like Rumble Fish his movies never seem bombastic or like a sell-out. Even a filmmaker like Judd Apatow uses this style to great effect. Similarly, this gravitation of talent often occurs organically, because these directors are so well respected, A-List stars are inherently attracted to their projects.

 

The Inspiration

Searches for the perfect actor to fill a coveted role are often laborious as directors often want a performer of the correct presence and physical appearance to bring a movie alive, especially one derived from material with a sensitive fan base. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the “Harry Potter” franchise arguably have some of the most dazzling ensemble casts ever captured on screen and yet in almost every case the choices are superb.

Whether adapting a book, or in the case of a film like Sin City a graphic novel, filmmakers want to stay true to the source material and clearly that means casting the best which, incidentally, is more often than not an A-lister.

 

The Green

The movie business. Note the word “business”. No matter what critical acclaim, what pop-culture-altering effect a film may have, it will always be about the money when all is said and done. The money angle flows through all of the aforementioned categories, and just like with remakes and sequels, structuring a film around a huge cast is a better bet than casting unknowns and hoping the material does its job.

Efforts like the “Oceans” trilogy are entirely built around the concept of a star-studded film and that is not to say that the actors in play are not talented but studios will always go for a Brad Pitt over a Sam Rockwell. Even in a film that oozes prestige like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, the presence of a massive ensemble cast must have in part been influenced by money; an attempt to sell difficult subject matter to the masses.

The reason for the use of an ensemble cast, in almost all cases, is a combination of all the above aspects; the studios want money, the filmmakers want their vision to be spot-on and everyone wants the audience to ultimately be satisfied. The void between successful and disastrous uses of this technique rarely falls on the stars themselves but rather on the quality of the production and screenplay. Ample starpower can bring great material to life but as soon as the focus is put on the names rather than the actual product, ensemble casts just become another technique modern Hollywood has warped to the point of gimmick.

 

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