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Savoring the bitter

FILM CRITIC

Amy Adams has a smile that plays big, taking over her face, then the room, then everyone in it. It’s as if the world is suddenly bathed in sunshine. That’s why it’s hard to imagine anyone else as the dipped-in-happiness princess of “Enchanted,” a cartoon character come to life, who sings and sews her way into Patrick Dempsey’s heart.

But as wonderful as that super-saturated optimism can be, and as much as Hollywood suits and moviegoers alike prefer her in those roles, she is even more interesting to watch as someone who’s been hurt, betrayed by life or circumstance or someone else. Those finely textured performances have a way of surprising you, so unexpected do they feel, so unlike the lightness of her comedy.

It’s when she comes undone that I love Adams most. She paints a thousand colors on that dark canvas: bruising pain, profound empathy, infinite compassion, infinite need. There is an interior steeliness to her darker work -- a sharp intake of breath as she brushes her broken bits under the rug, a flash of lightning in stormy eyes, and you know she will, in a Scarlett O’Hara-as-God-is-her-witness-way, carry on.

The nuance Adams brings to those moments will ultimately go a long way in defining her still-developing career. (She turns 35 this month but she plays much younger). Consider “Julie & Julia,” the great French bake-off that opened over the weekend that costars Adams, though Meryl Streep’s Julia Child effortlessly whips egg whites and everyone and everything else into a fluffy meringue. While Streep has been butter-cream frosted in praise -- and rightfully so -- the reception to Adams as Julie has been something closer to frosty.

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Yet if you take a close look at Adams in the film, you’ll discover another carefully calibrated performance. Everything about her character is as it should be: self-involved, often superficial, often insecure, sometimes petty and with a “poor me” attitude that is very unappetizing when her day job is assisting the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center collapse.

Her Julie Powell is a not-quite-30 Manhattan office drone who spends a year cooking through Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a desperate bid to flavor her own bland life. She was never supposed to step out of Child’s shadow, even when success comes.

Adams understands that. From the slump in her shoulders to the serious shear of her hair, she allows herself to shrink into someone smaller on screen than she’s ever been. At times it’s as if the camera is searching for her, which rarely happens, since the camera fell in love with her ages ago.

It’s quite simple, really -- if Adams has to choose between the character and our affection, she’ll go for the character every time. She’s a lot more than America’s sweetheart.

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Eyes have it

What I’ve come to believe is that Adams is a character actor blessed and cursed with a youthfully angelic face, leaving her the sizable task of layering meaning into performances that will, by necessity, reside inside porcelain perfection with a pert nose and a not quite grown-up voice.

All might be lost, or at least the potential for a broad artistic sweep to her career, if not for her eyes. An inky, indigo blue, they are a hopeless gossip, eager to let slip all the secrets hiding inside. When she throws them wide open, which she does with a sort of fierce intensity, the emotion you are witness to is unmitigated, raw and real. You understand why writer-director John Patrick Shanley would look at her and see the novice nun he envisioned for “Doubt,” a Madonna untouched, her piety and belief about to be shaken to the core.

Adams commits absolutely to whatever role she’s taken on, it’s a glimmer in the bouncy cheerleading afterthought she was in 1999 in her first film, “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” which starred a long list of other young actresses that were expected to outshine her, including Kirsten Dunst and Brittany Murphy. As Amelia Earhart earlier this year in the silliness of “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” Adams evoked an old-style glamour; in jodhpurs and a bob, she became Amelia, feisty and formidable and comically adorable.

Despite expectations, her breakthrough did not come as the innocent who falls for Leo DiCaprio’s con artist in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” in 2002. There she was largely overlooked despite a nuanced performance of absolute love betrayed. The devastating final image of her is on an airport curb, Feds at the ready with arrest warrants for her ex-lover in hand. There stands little girl lost, crushed as much by the Judas role she finds herself in as any betrayal by DiCaprio’s con.

‘Junebug’ leap

It was not until the 2005 indie film “Junebug” that the actress finally caught everyone’s attention. An Oscar nomination came just as she was about to give up on Hollywood and head back to the stage.

“Junebug,” though, was a revelation; a close-up of just what Adams might be capable of as she delivered a tour de force of battered optimism and endless need with a fractured smile and a Southern drawl.

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It was supposed to be Embeth Davidtz’s movie in her role as the sophisticated art dealer who travels south to woo a reclusive artist and squeeze in a first visit to her in-laws. And her arrival does indeed set things in motion and keeps upending the equilibrium of this barely middle-class family. But from the moment a barefoot and pregnant Ashley runs out of the house to embrace her new sister-in-law, it becomes, without question, Adams’ film.

There are countless moments in “Junebug” when Adams’ performance breaks your heart. The easy one to choose is in the hours after she’s lost the baby she had nicknamed Junebug. But my favorite is of Adams playing beauty parlor, painting Davidtz’s fingernails a bright red as she chatters on about her life, the baby, her very small dreams. In that scene we realize just how completely Ashley understands the great divide between her life and Davidtz’s. All the ways in which she tries to make the words, “I’m fine. . . . I’m fine” gain purchase, a bowed head, a quick glance, a quivering smile.

A dark turn

On the horizon for Adams is “Leap Year,” a romantic comedy that has her running off to Ireland, and the new David O. Russell drama, “The Fighter,” which follows the Rocky-like rise of boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward played by Mark Wahlberg, with Christian Bale as the once drug-addled half-brother who guides him.

But the one I’m most looking for is in that netherworld of development -- “Daughter of the Queen of Sheba” with Lasse Hallstrom set to direct. It’s an adaptation of Jacki Lyden’s disturbing and deeply moving memoir about surviving her mother’s descent into manic depression. A shadowy place where Adams can breathe in the darkness and come undone.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Role play

“Julie & Julia” (2009)

“Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” (2009)

“Doubt” (2008)

“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” (2008)

“Sunshine Cleaning” (2008)

“Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007)

“Enchanted” (2007)

“Underdog” (2007)

“Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny” (2006)

“Pennies” (2006)

“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” (2006)

“Moonlight Serenade” (2006)

“Standing Still” (2005)

“Junebug” (2005)

“The Wedding Date” (2005)

“The Last Run” (2004)

“Catch Me If You Can” (2002)

“Serving Sara” (2002)

“Pumpkin” (2002)

“The Slaughter Rule” (2002)

“Cruel Intentions 2" (2000)

“Psycho Beach Party” (2000)

“Drop Dead Gorgeous” (1999)


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