In case you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen a magazine in the last eighteen months, Pattinson is the face of the mega-popular Twilight franchise, starring as blue-balled vampire Edward Cullen. Before Twilight, Pattinson was best known as ill-fated Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and the face-to-name recognition was virtually nil. He was pretty much, “That guy from that one Harry Potter movie”. Twilight has changed all that, making Pattinson a household name, especially if your household contains a teenaged girl. However, as Harrison Ford once said of Star Wars, Twilight is only making Pattinson famous, not establishing him as an actor. So I set out to answer the question–can Robert Pattinson act?
Using the two Twilight films as a guide (Twilight and New Moon), the answer is no. However, Twilight doesn’t do anyone any favors, so I’ll go back in his filmography for more evidence. How about his turn in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? Well…still no. Harry Potter really doesn’t ask for much from Pattinson except that he dies in the right place, but before that he comes across as a remote, almost cold presence. I suppose that’s fine for the character described in the book as “pretty boy Diggory”. Like Harry Potter, Twilight doesn’t require much more of Pattinson than standing around and looking pretty, but when it comes to standing around and looking pretty, no one does it better than Pattinson. He is very, very pretty, and I think there’s a little bit of interest in his face, a touch of character that suggests he hasn’t quite grown into his looks. He is a young man, just twenty-three, so I can believe in a few more years he’ll be not only pretty, but interesting to look at. Right now, however, there is only the pretty. And the pretty is doing most of the acting.
Then there’s the brooding. Edward Cullen broods a lot. I imagine Pattinson’s shooting scripts for Twilight as just saying, “Hit your mark and brood into camera two.” Start reading interviews or reviews for Pattinson, and you’ll see the phrase, “broody good looks” A LOT. For the record, I disagree; Pattinson is most attractive to me when laughing or smiling. When brooding, he kind of just looks constipated, which makes me think Edward needs to find a way to get some fiber in his diet. This is the sum total of my impression of his efforts in the Twilight movies: constipated. I did notice a little more facial flexibility in New Moon, but generally I really wanted Edward to find a bathroom. Still, the Twilight movies aren’t about acting, they’re about Edward Cullen looking pretty, and in that sense, Pattinson is succeeding.
Going back further in the filmography, I found four movies I watched…parts of. I sat all the way through How To Be and Little Ashes, but that only convinced me to be ready to fast forward in The Haunted Airman and The Bad Mother’s Handbook. How To Be and Little Ashes both found second life after falling flat the first time around, thanks to Pattinson’s sudden Twilight fame. Little Ashes had a limited theatrical release in North America, and How To Be hit some festivals before debuting on DVD (it must be noted that the Strasbourg International Film Festival and the Hollywood Film Festival both gave Pattinson prizes for How To Be). Little Ashes was definitely the better of the two movies. How To Be was painfully bad–it was like watching lame community theater. For the most part Pattinson was all sad eyes or incredulous huffing, but in a couple places I saw a spark of something more interesting, especially in a scene where he loses his temper. Pattinson cranks the amp to eleven and actually raises his voice, leaving behind the soft-spoken, self-effacing tone I’ve got so used to hearing. His performance wasn’t without merit, it was just stuck in the middle of one of the most awkwardly conceived movies I’ve ever watched.
Little Ashes was a bit better, and more of Pattinson’s performance existed on that cranked-to-eleven level. He plays Salvador Dali before he was famous, telling the story of Dali’s school-days friendship (and more?) with Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca. Spanish actor Javier Beltran starred as Lorca and his was the better of the two performances, but Pattinson labored under the weight of Dali’s sense of self and his many, many mannerisms. At least Pattinson was game. He actually grew The Mustache for the end of the film. He wore the clothes well, which is an underrated element of acting in a period film, and he was willing to go all the way with Dali’s ambiguous sexuality, engaging in two of the most awkward and sad sex scenes I’ve seen in any film, let alone in the same film. Between these two films what I really gathered about Pattinson’s talent is a willingness to try. He isn’t afraid to look weird or ridiculous, and he’s willing to take an unflattering look at a popular figure (his Dali is manipulative and passive aggressive and self-obsessed). For such a good-looking guy, he seems to have no vanity about looking less than perfect on screen.
The other two movies, The Bad Mother’s Handbook and The Haunted Airman, were made-for-TV movies on the BBC. The Bad Mother’s Handbook is in the same vein as How To Be; Pattinson plays an odd, strangely dressed young man who kind of mumbles a lot. However, in Handbook the mumbling has a distinctly caustic flavor that’s missing from How To Be. This is also a supporting role, so the schtick doesn’t wear as thin as it did in How To Be. The Haunted Airman is a mystery/suspense story about a World War II pilot who is paralyzed after a plane crash and left to recuperate in a remote British hospital. Pattinson does nail the physicality of being paralyzed, but this movie, like Twilight and Harry Potter, is all about his ability to look pretty, cold, and remote. However, Pattinson is literally alone on camera for large chunks of the movie, and he remains engaging and interesting to watch. This is huge. Orlando Bloom, so like Pattinson in so many ways–pretty, surged to fame after a role in a fantasy franchise, teen idol–suffered a major career setback when it turned out that he’s no fun to watch unless he’s being a better actor’s sidekick (I call this Leading Man Syndrome–more on that later). Pattinson is able to hold my interest by himself, although I confess to skipping out on the end of The Haunted Airman–I figured the ending out about five minutes into the movie and all that silent brooding into space got boring after a while.
And then there is Remember Me, Pattinson’s first non-Twilight project since Twilight made him famous. I don’t want to get into a discussion about this movie’s ending, but suffice it to say that even removing the ending–one of the worst ideas I’ve seen in recent cinematic memory–the movie is only so-so. Pattinson basically plays Edward Cullen minus the sparkly vampirism–his character Tyler is a disaffected youth with a penchant for brooding. While his acting is a cut above the Twilight movies, it still wasn’t a total effort where I was convinced I was watching this guy, not Robert Pattinson. The camera had a tendency to remain on Tyler’s face as he stared out a window, brooding. Tyler was more interesting–Pattinson more effective–when his whole body was in frame and we could see more than just blank-faced brooding. Pattinson was also most convincing when he was being a bit of a prick. Tyler had some asshole moments–mouthing off to cops, hitting on a girl, bullying the kids that bullied his sister–and in those scenes Pattinson was the most engaged and sold the character as a person separate from himself. This bodes well as he is currently shooting an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami, which features one of the biggest assholes in literary history. Still, with that face they’re going to want Pattinson to be a viable, grown-up romantic lead and Remember Me’s uninspiring box office and downright awful reviews leave Pattinson a ways to go down that road.
So, can Robert Pattinson act? Fourteen hundred words later and I think…maybe.