Can Ryan Gosling Make Carnies Cool?

Originally published on Junkee.

There’s a high chance you got excited when you saw the line-up for The Place Beyond The Pines, which opened in Australia today. Finally, the 2011 “World’s Sexiest Man” furore could play out on screen: Ryan Gosling, as the underdog outsider, would take on clean-cut cop Bradley Cooper. There’d be shirtless wrestling and handcuffs, muscle-filled montages and showdowns. Perhaps they’d spar while both holding babies? Imaginations, libidos and uteri everywhere got ready to squeal with delight.

So, did the fellas cross swords or pull out their pistols, mano-a-mano? Um, sort of, but not really. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s unlikely that Derek Cianfrance’s latest flick will be what you were expecting or hoping for.

Far from a tabloid-fuelled homoerotic romp, The Place Beyond the Pines is a lengthy, critically divisive, multi-generational crime drama that I wanted to love, but only kinda liked. The key supporting cast are in fine form, with locals Ben Mendelsohn and Rose Byrne standing out as much as Eva Mendes’ areolas (you’ll see). There are bank robberies, police politics, and a lot of ‘manly’ stuff going on: the movie is brimming with heavy father/son themes, a stack of masculine crisis material, and a protein powder vat worth of bravado. Sure, these aren’t necessarily bad things, but it all felt a little too ambitious. But enough beating around the pines (ugh, sorry), let’s get to the good stuff.

How Was The Ryan Gosling?

The February edition of GQ published six criteria for “The New and Improved Leading Man”: (1) The right balance of relatability and mystery; (2) Sex appeal; (3) A sense of humour; (4) The ability to keep surprising people; (5) The intelligence to recognise your moment, even if that means waiting for it; and (6) Indispensability. At this point, Gosling is graduating this class summa cum laude.

His image is a well-oiled, well-dressed, well-spoken machine; he maintains a ‘coolness’ that the likes of Channing Tatum lack. A few guest spots on SNL don’t come close to matching Gosling’s much-discussed cred: he’s a meme, a feminist favourite, a style icon, a monogamist’s fantasy and man-crush of the decade. Between his well-chosen mixed bag of roles, his band, and self-deprecating interviews, Gosling is a Hollywood hipster par excellence.

So what happens when Gosling leaves his Lars And The Real Girl knits behind, drops that Blue Valentine ukulele off the Brooklyn Bridge, shaves off the Half Nelson stubble, and joins the circus?

That’s right, in The Place Beyond the Pines, Gosling plays a carny.

What’s In A Carny?

Historically, carnies aren’t the coolest guys, and carnivals are scary, alien places — thinkStrangers On A Train or The Funhouse. Typically, carnies are presented as thieves or unkempt lowlifes; shady and unclean, they’re as frightening and ramshackle as the rides they supervise. They’re rough outcasts who play by their own questionable moral code (if any); shirtless, chain-smoking degenerates who steal and cheat.

Their mythology and lifestyle may be unappealing but it’s definitely intriguing, so carnies regularly featuring as plot devices or go-to phobias (remember the ‘Bart Carny’ episode of The Simpsons, or Austin Powers’ classic “smell like cabbage, small hands” line?). This may seem like a pop culture-driven stigma, but if David Foster Wallace’s detailed account for Harper’s(republished in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) is anything to go by, the realities of carnivals and carnival folk are just as ugly and sweaty as we’ve been lead to believe.

The Place Beyond The Pines plays the carny card straight; there’s no deliberate subversion here. Motorbike daredevil Luke (Gosling) is never without a cigarette, often without a shirt, and definitely a criminal. But his heart is in the right place because, upon returning to Schenectady for the first time since the (literal) circus last came to town, Luke discovers that his fairground fling with Romina (Mendes) resulted in a baby. In an effort to do the right thing, he puts an end to his nomadic ways, sticking around to support his girl and kid… by robbing banks.

Was Gosling Right For The Role?

In the film’s memorable opening sequence, the camera takes the viewer into this world by following Gosling’s broad shouldered, heavily tattooed back into the stunt tent. He’s immediately transfixing — so much so that,according to Cianfrance, they had trouble shooting on location because the locals and extras kept staring at the star. And who can blame them? It’s a shirtless Ryan Gosling.

But as The Gangster Squad has proved, Gosling screen presence is too great to play second billing. He may have bleached his locks and be covered in (fake) ink, but it feels like too obvious a construct, blatant brushstrokes on a Hollywood hero canvas. The fairground location may have aimed for authenticity, but next to the extras, Gosling and Mendes were far too pretty to be gritty; they blindingly detract from the attempted social realism. Gosling may have been playing a carny, but there’s no way he smelt like cabbage.

As a character, Luke felt more like a haunted house than a famous sideshow act. You can take the guy out of Gucci and put him a ripped Metallica t-shirt and skull-embossed happy pants, but that doesn’t make his eyelashes any less curled and him any less dreamy. But it wasn’t only Gosling’s personal hygiene and general handsomeness that caused the distance between his presence and his portrayal; it was also the actor’s growing persona, and the spectres of the characters that came before Luke. His bulky shirtlessness, for instance, called back to Crazy Stupid Love, and there are obvious parallels to Drive, too: beyond the brooding, stunt driver character, the soundtrack and initial art direction feel eerily similar. And while I’m on a free-associative spiral, there was an odd symmetry to watching Gosling/Luke meet his current on-screen/off-screen flame at a carnival, and watching Gosling/Noah meets his previous on-screen/off-screen flame (Rachel McAdams) at a carnival in The Notebook.

But while these elements may detract from the stinky, rough, realistic carny connotations, they just make Luke less Tod Browning’s Freaks and more Elvis in Roustabout. Which is fine. Luke’s cool-rider daredevil motorcycle stylings call to Steve McQueen or Marlon Brando (not Grease 2), and the tattoos become signifiers for some of cinema’s most appealing inked-up criminals, like Johnny Depp’s Cry-Baby (the knife-shaped teardrop especially), and Night of the Hunter’s Robert Mitchum.

Essentially, while likely not the aim, everything Gosling brings to the character helps make his carny less distasteful. Some pop culture redemption has been thrown the carnies’ way in recent times: a HBO stamp of approval (with short-lived Carnivàle); Britta’s affection for a cavalier carnie called Blade inCommunity (‘Origins of Vampire Mythology’); and apparently The Mentalist’s main man (played by Simon Baker) is an ex-carny (thanks, Google!).

Perhaps now Gosling will be responsible for the second (or first) coming of the carnies? Some kind of carny-chic style? Who knows what power a Gosling endorsement holds!

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