Michelle Yeoh finally (!) got the recognition she long deserved this year as “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” was a super smash hit. Brendan Fraser’s astonishing work in “The Whale” had everyone buzzing on the festival circuit, and Cate Blanchett may have given her career best performance as Lydia Tár in “TÁR.” Even newcomer Kali Reis delivered a knockout with her flinty work in “Catch the Fair One.” But this annual column isn’t here to praise or celebrate those performers. (Even though it just did, wink!)
Just as a good performance can uplift a mediocre film, a bad performance can ruin a good one. Sometimes an actor’s choices just seem all wrong; other times, miscasting an actor can have a detrimental effect on a film. And there was some really bad acting to grace cinema screens in 2022.
These performances are not taking-the-money and a B-movie bad, like Jonathan Rhys Meyers sleepwalking through “Wifelife,” a lifeless sci-fi flick, or Dermot Mulroney acting with a bag over his head as he did for a portion of his film, “Agent Game” this year. No, they are examples where ambitions exceeded talent and expectations fell short of outcome. These are performances that are cringe-inducing in all the wrong ways.
Adam Driver makes the list again, and while he should be commended for taking chances, dude, they need to start paying off! Ana de Armas appeared in two of these films, but she deserves blame for only one of them. And while Harry Styles has tongues wagging, his acting in one film this year was head scratching.
Here is a rundown of the year’s worst performances.
Ben Affleck in “Deep Water” (20th Century Studios/Hulu)
Playing a sociopath akin to his buddy Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley should have been perfect casting for Ben Affleck who at his best can be sly, smug and seductive all at once. But as Vic in “Deep Water,” Affleck’s passive performance masquerades as mysterious and it just feels lazy. He is unconvincing when he tells a friend he loves his wife, Melina (Ana de Armas). When he’s intimidating Charlie (Jacob Elordi), one of his wife’s lovers, he is more stiff than shifty. There is no charm to Affleck’s quiet menace. He is bland even eating a piece of apple Melinda gives him.
The actor practically sleepwalks through this turgid film. Around the 45-minute mark, where he questions Melinda about her spending the night out, she responds, “Finally, some emotion!” She then comments on Vic being assertive — because Affleck’s performance is so dispassionate, viewers need such cues. He glowers as he watches Melinda reconnect with her ex, Tony (Finn Wittrock), and glowers when Tony suggests eating some of Vic’s pet snails — suggesting both things make him equally mad. (Wittrock would have been terrific as Vic.) Vic pants more hurling a rock at Tony than he does when Melinda lustily puts Vic’s hand between her legs. And when she asks in this romantic moment if he’s bored, Vic replies, “No.” But Affleck’s yawn-inducing performance suggests otherwise.
Kya (Daisy Edgar-Jones) in “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony Pictures)
Edgar-Jones is capable of playing complex characters (see “Fresh,” earlier this year) but she is woefully miscast in “Where the Crawdads Sing,” the wrongheaded screen version of the best-selling novel. As Kya aka “The Marsh Girl,” Edgar-Jones’ performance is reduced to her looking quizzically at everyone in every scene. It is as if her face was frozen with Botox. Her character is meant to be an innocent and childlike, but Edgar-Jones overacts with her default expression of disbelief. She patents “the look” when her boyfriend Tate (Taylor John Smith) leaves her to go to college, and again, when she is mad at him, and he returns with his tail between his legs. She uses “the look” on Chase (Harris Dickinson), when he asks Kya, “Do you want to go for a picnic in my boat this Sunday,” staring at him intensely, overthinking the answer. She does it again when Chase introduces her to his fiancée, stunned that he isn’t in love with her like he said he was. She uses “the look” when she discovers her house is ransacked. She uses “the look” when her brother (Logan Macrae) informs Kya that their mother is dead. It is not a one-look-fits-all role. Edgar-Jones is risible when she tries to be arrogant and feisty, and she does not pass as a young woman who loves the marsh more than people — even though she has no chemistry with her male co-stars.
Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in “Blonde” (Netflix)
The problem with Ana de Armas’ Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe is not the risky casting, it is that the Cuban actress almost always puts the accent on the wrong syllable with every line reading. She can’t mimic Monroe’s delivery of a line in “Some Like It Hot.” When she is talking with the Ex-Athlete (Bobby Cannavale) and explains films being cut up like a jigsaw puzzle, it comes off as peculiar, as if she is barely able to express what she thinks. Even a scene of de Armas’ Marilyn joking, “Who died?” when her room is filled with flowers, doesn’t land. This may be part of her character — Norma Jean goes blank at times, lost in thought, scared, or just uncertain — but de Armas’ Marilyn doesn’t seem to have a thought in her bottle-blonde head. (Her hair in every scene expresses more about Marilyn than de Armas’ performance does in each and every scene.)
She also fails to have a sense of mystery about her, which is part of what made the real Monroe sparkle. “Blonde” sets up Norma Jeane as someone to pity, because she had a difficult childhood, and several men abused her physically and emotionally. She also suffered mental illness, had two abortions and battled drug addiction, but the film makes viewers pity de Armas, who cries and cries and cries and cries and criesas she is mistreated, sexually abused, objectified and worse. A scene of her fellating the President (Casper Phillipson) is the film’s nadir. But it’s a low bar, because “Blonde” often has de Armas naked, and wearing a deer-in-the-headlights look of just plain confusion. Early in “Blonde” after a difficult screen test, one studio exec describes Norma Jeane’s performance as “Pretty bad.” Another says, “It’s like watching a mental patient, not acting. There’s no technique.” Yep, that pretty much sums it up.
Sam Nivola, Adam Driver, May Nivola, Greta Gerwig, Dean Moore/Henry Moore and Raffey Cassidy in “White Noise” (Wilson Webb/Netflix)
Noah Baumbach’s head-scratching adaptation of Don DeLillo’s brilliant novel features two flat, affectless performances at its hollow center. Even with the rapid-fire dialogue, Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig have no spark. He is paunchy, and she is all frazzled. The film is meant to be a dry satire, but it’s painfully unfunny watching Driver’s strained comic mugging. A sequence where he has to save his daughter’s dropped bunny has him fighting his way through a crowd as if he was a football player trying to reach the end zone. Then he seems to act as if dropped into a war movie. When he gets back in the car and drives off, as if he was a criminal, he ends up stuck in a river and contorts his face to express his despair. Viewers may have the same expressions. The film’s tone is wildly uneven, but Driver’s performance is too. He makes several questionable choices about how to play Jack — as a hero, a sad sack, a reassuring father, a man haunted by death, a jealous husband — and none of them work. He even spoils a throwaway line, “I know women appreciate men who can joke about sex. I can’t unfortunately, and after this, I don’t think there’s much chance I’ll be able to learn.” Meanwhile, Gerwig stares out windows and cries. Her speech about having done something as a last resort fails to suggest any real despair. Her character, Babette, is taking a drug called Dylar, so Gerwig’s insipid performance suggests the actress is on Thorazine. It may be why she never engenders any emotion, but this film and these performances do not make viewers feel anything other than frustration.
Harry Styles in “My Policeman” (Amazon Studios)
Styles may have gotten more attention in the press this year for his off-screen behavior surrounding “Don’t Worry Darling,” but his turn as Tom, the title character in “My Policeman,” showed the narrow limits of his acting range. Styles plays a closeted cop in late 1950’s England, and his feeble turn really serves as another variation on his queerbaiting. It is hard to buy Styles as a Brighton policeman, much less a gay man in love with both Patrick (David Dawson) and Marion (Emma Corrin). Patrick is attracted to Tom’s “innocence combined with a curiosity,” but Styles plays Tom’s guilelessness as apathy. It makes the apex of the love triangle collapse. Yes, Styles is handsome, but he is not very appealing here. Moreover, Tom has difficulty proposing to Marion and telling Patrick he is getting married, and these moments should feature some real anxiety, not indifference. Scenes of Tom pensive on Brighton’s beach, looking out to the water, fail to reflect the weight of his problems. When Tom tells Patrick he “can’t live like this,” [e.g., as a gay man] it lacks regret or guilt. Every line is performed in monotone save a few angry outbursts. Styles was more persuasive in “Don’t Worry Darling,” and his “As It Was” video features more charm, emotion, and feeling in 5 minutes than his screen work here. His lackluster performance in “My Policeman” confirms that he should stick to his day job for now.
Tom Hanks as Colonel Tom Parker in “Elvis” (Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros. Pictures)
It is rare to see Tom Hanks play a villain, and yet his interpretation of the manipulative Colonel Tom Parker is also a rarity — a really bad performance by the back-to-back Oscar-winning actor. First, there is his accent. Parker was Dutch, but in “Elvis,” Hanks makes the Colonel sounds at times to be Irish, or German, or Tom Hanks, or Elmer Fudd. In a scene where Parker is in the hospital, having had a heart attack, he affects all four. Likewise, Hanks-as-Parker’s perpetual open-mouthed expression can be read as Parker’s dismay, skepticism and awe. Maybe it is the fact that the actor is buried under layers of latex. (Hanks resembles the late character actor Richard B. Shull, rather than the real Parker in most scenes.) But his performance is bewildering; what is he doing? Hanks’ physical movements range from slow to hurried, and when he repeatedly tries to catch up with Elvis to save his cash cow, he has as much grace as Benny Hill playing an old man. There are also goofy moments of Hanks’ Parker wearing a hospital gown in a casino that does neither Hanks nor the film any favors. Director Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic, overstimulating biopic recounts the King’s story through Parker’s lens — “I’m the man who gave Elvis to the world” — but Hanks’ key role is a misfire. Parker is meant to be hated, but it should be for his actions, not Hanks’ acting. It makes sense why the actor would take this plum part, but how he plays Parker makes no sense at all.