Career counseling: Lighten up, Leo

Is it just me, or does it seem as if Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting career has somehow lost its way in the seventh level of “Inception’s” labyrinth? Or worse, is he locked into the nightmare limbo that the Christopher Nolan psychological thriller keeps alluding to?

Questions such as these have been running through my mind lately, occasionally even disturbing my dreams, because his “Inception” character, Cobb, is just the latest iteration of what I’ve come to think of as “the DiCaprio type” — intelligently handsome but intensely tortured, like his possibly insane detective in “Shutter Island.” Or his depressed husband in “Revolutionary Road” (and seriously, does loving Leo have to be a death sentence?).

Then there’s his dark CIA operative in “Body of Lies,” his disturbed trafficker in “Blood Diamond,” his compromised undercover cop in “The Departed,” his just plain crazy Howard Hughes in “The Aviator,” unwashed and holed up in an empty room with long, curling fingernails and countless urine samples … you get the picture.

And that’s just the tip of his nearly flawlessly constructed iceberg of flawed men, with no apparent warming trend in sight for this boy’s life. Next up is the Clint Eastwood-directed biopic “Hoover,” with DiCaprio as the FBI’s legendary twisted sister, J. Edgar. There are reportedly nearly two-dozen projects in development with names such as “Beat the Reaper,” “In Dark Woods,” “Prisoners” and “Brave New World,” with plot descriptions that start with “drama” followed by such other descriptions as “bleak” and “apocalyptic.”


Suffice it to say that there are more than enough dark endeavors to turn that deep worry line already etching its way between his brows into a veritable chasm. Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to see DiCaprio’s dazzling smile, the one that crinkles those aquamarine eyes so winningly, on something besides the Jumbotron at Lakers games?

The issue is not quality — he is by all estimates, mine included, a terrific, soulful actor — but rather a desire to see a fine talent build an even richer (and just to be clear, I’m not referring to his estimated $20-million per picture fee), full-bodied career. One more like that of Meryl Streep, who he has said is his favorite actress, the one whose sheer skill he most admires. She has created an extraordinary body of work by journeying across the cinematic spectrum, digging deep into characters as diverse as this very diverse industry will afford. Why not, then, re-imagine a future more like hers? The extraordinary pain of “Sophie’s Choice” balanced by the stinging, tart fun of “The Devil Wears Prada,” the sheer joy of “Julie & Julia” living comfortably in the same world with the conflicted nun of “Doubt.”

Or, to cite another maestro of the disturbed man: Sean Penn, as evidenced by his Oscar-winning portrait of the vengeance-crazed father in “Mystic River.” But he’s also played lighter, from Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” to the jazz guitarist in the Woody Allen comedy “Sweet and Lowdown.” Then too, Penn’s got “The Three Stooges” on the horizon.

Too often, we fall into the trap of believing that only the serious has import, that the true measure of an actor’s skill is found only in exploring and exposing the agony of the soul or the dark recesses of the mind. To that I would say Robert Downey Jr., an actor so facile that he can dive to unfathomable depths, and yet rise just as brilliantly on the hot air balloon of comedy.

There’s never been a doubt that DiCaprio, who turns 36 in November, is as serious about the craft as they come. He was born in Hollywood and, I think, born to Hollywood. The work has been impressive nearly from the start, or certainly since 1993’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” which at 19 earned him his first of three Oscar nods. He began acting in films with 1991’s “Critters 3,” which, in case you’re wondering, did not earn him any awards but did open some doors.

As significant, when it comes to commanding the screen, DiCaprio has always been able to hold his own — his very presence drawing the eye even when he’s sharing the space with other American acting lions, as he did early on in “This Boy’s Life” with Robert De Niro, another serious actor who has more than given in to a lighter side, perhaps never better than in “Midnight Run.”

Excluding this year, which is yet to be determined, the last seven films DiCaprio has starred in have been either Oscar winners or contenders. The directors he works with are among our most exceptional — frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Sam Mendes, Michael Mann, Sam Raimi, Baz Luhrmann, Allen and more — distinctive artists all with very different aesthetic styles.

And yet … why is it so rare for him to play the sexy rake, which he did so well with that dreamy artistic Jack Dawson in “Titanic,”, or the charming con in Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can”? Or, when it comes to love, why not a happier ending for a change, rather than the bad deaths usually visited on his significant others?

DiCaprio has a gift for opening up and letting all sorts of specific character ticks take up residence for the duration of a film. Though he can use his face to great effect, and he does, he also lets things seep into his sinews — the languid grace of a hopeful young husband in “Revolutionary Road” that slowly turns sour, a defeated slump so authentic that you can feel the weariness.

But an actor of great range? Sadly, no, and not because he doesn’t have it in him. It just seems that that’s not on the agenda now, even though he’s in that tiny league of actors able to pick and choose. What a pity.

There is much to suggest that DiCaprio can tackle almost anything. We’ve seen the romance he’s capable of in enough films to know the possibilities. Allen understood his comic potential, with DiCaprio’s high camp turn as a hotel-trashing young star in “Celebrity,” while in “Catch Me If You Can,” Spielberg captured the almost Fred Astaire lightness of mood and movement that DiCaprio can channel.

Don’t get me wrong — I would not want to lose such a formidable dramatic force. But it’s time to try the lighter side — one note will eventually bore us, and perhaps Leo as well. It has its own risks, but I’m pretty sure it was fearlessness that made Jack Dawson the king of the world.