Reese Witherspoon started crawling out of the romantic-comedy muck two years ago in "Mud," aptly titled given the situation.
The actress wasn't even the costar — that place was taken by two Huck Finnish boys, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, who help Matthew McConaughey's Arkansas fugitive evade some bad numbers. As Mud's tattered Southern love, Witherspoon's love 'em and leave 'em down-market girl is dialed-down gritty. A far cry from typical for an actress who has traveled a great distance as the good girl with a slight Southern drawl and a very perky smile.
Earlier this month, the 38-year-old continued the trend, a nicely understated supporting act to the Lost Boys of Sudan in "The Good Lie." But the Oscar-winning actress is about to serve notice that she intends, once again, to be taken seriously when she goes "Wild."
The film, based on Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir, hit the fall film festival circuit on its way to a December release and an awards bid. Watching the actress translate Strayed's punishing solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in a journey to regain her soul, I couldn't help but see the parallel between the role and the star when I caught it during the Toronto International Film Festival.
For Witherspoon, "Wild" is, if you will, her "Illegally Blonde," the antithesis of the actress' 2001 breakout in "Legally Blonde." In that film, she plays a pampered sorority queen bee who gets serious after a heartbreak and makes it into Harvard Law School. A boy, not the bar, is the goal, at least at first. That "Blonde" played to her known qualities: smart, sassy, sweet and single-minded.
Like many actors, success became a catch-22 for Witherspoon. The studios preferred to stick like glue to her romantic-comedy cachet, long after the thrill was gone. Backed into these sort of Hollywood corners, actors get antsy to do something different. And that, in turn, makes the money guys antsy, not so eager to back a risk, particularly one being taken by an actress heading toward 40. Which is why Witherspoon, like so many of her peers, got in the production game to find projects, like "Wild," that interested her.
Risk is exactly what a vibrant acting career demands. It's why McConaughey, who was fighting his way out of his own slick bad-boy cliché, was in "Mud" too. A 47-pound drop and a riveting turn as a Dallas cowboy with AIDS a few months later was the game-changer, taking McConaughey from lightweight to heavyweight, from overlooked to an Oscar. Whether "Wild" will do that for Witherspoon is still a very open question, but at least it does raise the question.
For many years, there seemed to be no question about who Witherspoon was: America's Southern sweetheart. That die was cast when she was 14 at an open casting call for a bit part in the Southern coming-of-age romance "The Man in the Moon." She walked away with the 1991 film's lead — a 14-year-old rural Louisiana tomboy named Dani who falls in love and gets her first kiss from a 17-year-old farm boy named Court (Jason London).
It is the kind of role that became her signature, the same formula, just a little more polished and pretentious, that led to her 1999 critical breakthrough as the manipulative mean girl in Alexander Payne's "Election." But the one-two punch of 2001's "Legally Blonde" — box office hit, praise for her performance — certified Witherspoon as leading lady material. After "Legally," it seemed everything she touched turned to gold.
A year later, one of her most successful films thus far — at least money-wise — came in "Sweet Home Alabama," her classic Southern belle overtaking New York City high society. Naturally, a "Blonde" sequel followed. Critics trashed it, and fans didn't like it much better. In 2004, she was climbing another social ladder, this time in bodices and lace in "Vanity Fair"; its reception was subdued.
Fans continued to show up for Witherspoon films, though in lessening numbers. The promise praised in "Blonde" quickly gave way to grousing about unrealized potential. Since Hollywood didn't see it that way, the actress continued to rack up credits and cash, but no cred, until Cash.
In playing country singer June Carter opposite Joaquin Phoenix's unerring Johnny Cash in 2005's "Walk the Line," she became an actress worth serious consideration. From her singing to her sass, she lit up the screen, she caught everyone off guard, and she walked away with an Oscar for it.
Still, in a sense, "Walk the Line" was not so much a departure as reaching the peak of the very particular mountain she had begun climbing at 14. What set her portrayal of June Carter apart from all that had come before was the way Witherspoon created a rich emotional center and built a complex character out from there.
But in the films that followed, that depth didn't last.
In 2007's "Rendition," Witherspoon played the anxious wife of an Egyptian man the government believes to be a terrorist. She was in good company with Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard as costars, but it was a hackneyed thriller that did none of them any favors.
Whether it was her choice or Hollywood's, the actress soon drifted back to romantic comedy. But there was no safety there. "Four Christmases" opposite Vince Vaughan in 2008 made money at the box office, but it was a critical disaster. The actress all but disappeared except for voice-over work in the animated "Monsters vs. Aliens."
To Witherspoon's credit, she took notice.
Fewer and mostly better roles began showing up, starting with 2011's "Water for Elephants." The literary adaptation, which costarred Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz, while not roundly embraced, was a risk and a challenge. Witherspoon's beautiful but abused Depression-era circus moll had some heartbreaking moments.
In 2013, her career took a different sort of hit, when she was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct — her "Do you know who I am?" tirade lighting up the social media networks.
But fans do like a repenter, and Witherspoon has done that with public apologies and no repeat offenses. The incident definitely tarnished her "good girl" image, but it also made Witherspoon seem human. Perhaps that fall from grace helped inform the very flawed woman she plays in "Wild."
Lank hair, f-bombs, drugs, inappropriate sex, bad choices, literary soul, Cheryl Strayed is not seeking our forgiveness or our friendship. In playing her, Witherspoon unearths an organic, earthy side, baring her bruises and her blisters and most of the rest of her body. But it is her naked vulnerability that sets the performance apart. Darker, it turns out, is a good look.
Whether this serious side can work in her comedy wheelhouse will be the next test. "Inherent Vice" should begin to answer that question. The coming crime comedy-drama is adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel by writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who can't seem to under-intellectualize anything. The film is the AFI centerpiece next month, then it gets a short run in December to qualify for Oscar consideration before hitting theaters in January.
Witherspoon's role is another secondary one, but significant. As the occasional squeeze of a private eye named Doc, played by Phoenix, who has been good luck for her in the past, the actress gets to try a very different brand of humor — yet another shade of blonde.