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“A Late Quartet” and “Seven Psychopaths”: Walken Punchlines?

November 19, 2012

When exactly did Christopher Walken become a joke? Was it when comics like Kevin Pollak and Jay Mohr started doing staccato impressions of him? Or when he became a self-parodying semi-regular guest host of Saturday Night Live (“More cowbell!”)? Or when he made ridiculous movies like The Prophecy I-III, Balls of Fury, Joe DirtThe Country Bears and Kangaroo Jack?

No matter, the fact is Walken’s one of our finest actors—or can be, when he puts his mind to it—but too often he’s cast in roles that allow him to coast on his persona as a hair-trigger oddball, an image he’s been developing since his early days in Oscar-winning films like Annie Hall and The Deer Hunter. Now Walken’s appearing in two films currently in theaters, A Late Quartet and Seven Psychopaths, that show him at his best and worst.

First: the good news. A Late Quartet gives Walken his most challenging part in years, a classical celloist whose diagnosis with the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease causes his classical ensemble to splinter. Walken wisely underplays his role as the senior member of the group, whose departing wish is to keep the band together, even as the long-overlooked second violinist (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) cheats on his violist wife (Catherine Keener) with a groupie, and the arrogant first violinist (Mark Ivanir) begins a torrid affair with his colleagues’ college-age daughter (Imogen Poots).

A Late Quartet is basically a high-class soap opera, but with fine actors and high-quality music (the score is by Twin Peaks‘ Angelo Badalamente, supplemented by Beethoven and others). Walken rises to the level of his costars, and his natural musicality serves him well here, as it did when he tap-danced in the musical Pennies from Heaven and the Fatboy Slim video “Weapon of Choice.” And as someone who watched a family member succumb to Parkinson’s, I can testify that his depiction of the disease is note-perfect as well.

If only I could say the same for the horribly off-key Seven Psychopaths. Writer-director Martin McDonagh showed such promise with In Bruges, but just as he followed up his Broadway triumph The Lieutenant of Inishmore with the shallow exercise in misanthropy A Behanding in Spokane (starring Walken at his most painfully mannered), he’s way off course with Seven Psychopaths. Walken wanders around wearing an ascot and carrying a dog as a canine kidnapper who runs afoul of a pooch-loving Mob boss (Woody Harrelson, utterly wasted). The entire ensemble, including In Bruges vet Colin Farrell and the too-rarely-seen Tom Waits, is stranded in a sea of mindless profanity, gunplay and winking showbiz in-jokes.

The key for Walken may be to lean away from his weirdo persona. Unless he’s working with Quentin Tarantino’s carefully chosen words, as he did in Pulp Fiction and True Romance, he seems better served playing regular guys (like he did in his Oscar-nominated turn as Leonardo DiCaprio’s ne’er-do-well dad in Catch Me If You Can). Otherwise, his career could become—to quote the title of one of his most underrated films—The Dead Zone.

What’s your favorite Christopher Walken flick? Any King of New York fans out there?

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