Does It Matter If Adam Driver Is A Bad Actor?
10:09 AM EST on December 29, 2023
A lot of people who don't obsess about movies all day look at Al Pacino as kind of a lovable ham: a once-quiet, subtle actor that must've hit the cocaine a little too hard in the '80s and thus became this overbearing, stage-eating over-actor—harrumphing and booming like one of the Jurassic Park dinosaurs screaming about great asses and being a fan of man. There is another way to look at Pacino, though—he's a movie star who has gotten as big as the movies themselves over the course of 50 years. Movie-star charisma is one of those impossible-to-quantify things, but if you watch enough movies you know it when you see it. Pacino's volcanic energy makes his characters big, and as a result, filmmakers keep giving him bigger and bigger forces of nature to play. There's nothing Irish about this heavily Italian man, he looks like he sweats olive oil, but if he says he's Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman, I kinda just believe him.
Throughout the just over two-hour runtime of Ferrari, I thought about Pacino as I watched Adam Driver as the titular car titan. This comparison was followed by thoughts that called into question what I was watching, even as I was ostensibly enjoying myself and that brooding, moody Michael Mann magic. Is Adam Driver a bad actor and, if he is, why can't I look away?
I like Adam Driver. He has good taste, mostly. He loves the right directors, but more importantly, the right directors absolutely LOVE him. Everyone from Spike Lee to Noah Baumbach to Leos Carax and now Michael Mann has clamored to work with him. Can all these people I respect be wrong?
Driver's never been an easy actor to pin down. He's experimental and seemingly exhibitionist in the types of characters he chooses. He's not a guy who shows up in a Netflix rom-com. Even his claim to fame, as Lena Dunham's dickhead boyfriend on Girls, was a surprisingly intense character. But that intensity keeps serving him well. As the petulant man-child turned supervillain, Kylo Ren, he was the best thing about the middling Star Wars reboot. And even in movies that don't work, he is always interesting and potent.
Ferrari feels like Driver's attempt to be place himself in the category of Great Actors. He plays Enzo Ferrari just on the slim, wobbly fence between parody and chameleon. He has a shaky Italian accent that's not quite House-of-Gucci bad, but isn't far away. He gained a lot of weight for the role, but not enough, and it's pretty obvious that he's using a pillow of sorts to create his old-man paunch. The aging makeup he wears to make up for the 20-year age difference between him and his character is pretty silly to look at.
And yet, Driver is absolutely magnetic on that big screen. He is as demonstrative, virile, confident, and big as the character should be in a movie like this. Because this is a Michael Mann movie, there are sequences where Driver barely speaks, instead communicating with stern looks and gestures that command your attention. He's also an absolute weirdo, to his very core, and he brings that sense of weirdness into this performance, as he does all others. In Ferrari, he does a lot of old-Italian-man genuflecting, not quite mafioso-style but still as kind of a caricature, and yet he's so committed that I just rolled with it. He always swallows the screen and you want to see him in every scene, regardless of whether his acting is "good" or his accent works. When he speaks in his bad accent about his terrible joys and deadly passions, I don't know what he means but I'm into it. His acting becomes a secondary concern.
It's this force of persona that I think makes him so attractive to so many filmmakers. Driver has almost Neanderthal levels of masculine energy and power. The kind that made Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, and Denzel Washington so sought after, and the kind that's in pretty short supply now. It's different than just being hot, or having a good physique—anyone can have that. What Driver has is a combination of power, energy, machismo, and animal magnetism that can't really be measured or explained, and it certainly can't be learned, much to the chagrin of those pushing alpha male-branded self-help products. It's brutish and animalistic and that's what great art needs sometimes. Not to be crass about it, but there's a reason directors keep putting this guy in the most thrust-heavy sex scenes imaginable (including Ferrari). It's also not a surprise that old legendary male directors love the guy, and just like Jesse Plemons, they love making him play much older than he actually is. David Mamet must be fuming that he's essentially blackballed and can't put those two guys in the most homoerotic movie about cops or lawyers who want to destroy each other.
This kind of volatility and charisma makes up for whatever it is that Driver lacks as a thespian. He can't disappear into a role, but he keeps choosing projects that seem to require that ability. Driver's magic trick is not becoming Enzo Ferrari, but convincing us that maybe Enzo Ferrari was a little bit like Adam Driver. It's more interesting to encompass an idea or a psychology than an actual person. I enjoyed The Last Duel, and Driver's greatness in it came from the way he captured an idea of masculine rage and dominance in a seemingly charming package. That kind of stuff suits him a lot more than biopics, but still, I can't imagine anyone else currently working pulling off quite what he does here in Ferrari. He's never boring, and he's fun to look at. Sometimes that's all you need from an actor.