Once upon a time Kevin Costner was the biggest movie star in the world. He was even, in the era of “Dances with Wolves” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” able to help turn a three-hour conspiracy theory movie about the JFK assassination (since basically disproven) into a box office behemoth. A few flops snipped his wings, and in the last decade he’s rarely stepped up to the lead. (One notable exception is 2007’s enjoyably, totally insane “Mr. Brooks,” though he was more the calm in the center of a mad storm.)
The last two years have seen him returning to the front of movies; last year he had the Luc Besson-shepherded thriller “3 Days to Kill,” as well as the inside baseball (or, in that case, football) drama “Draft Day.” In the next few weeks he has two: the race drama “Black or White” and the running saga “McFarland USA.” But Costner has also proven himself in the last 10 years as a winning supporting actor. In fact, one could make the case that he’s not really a serious (which is to say humorless) leading man, but rather a character actor who happens to have leading man looks. When freed from being in the spotlight, he’s able to loosen up and fall back on his not always utilized silly charm.
It was “Black or White” filmmaker Mike Binder himself who exploited just that in 2005’s “The Upside of Anger,” in which Costner helped a boozing Joan Allen get over the death of her husband. Smiling that goofy grin and clearly enjoying the chance to spit out quips and play a fun drunk, he did the opposite of what he’s often called on to do: to loosen things up as the comic relief. He kept at it. In 2010’s “The Company Men,” he takes a huge amount of joy busting the balls of Ben Affleck’s fallen business shark. And last year he snuck in moments of wry hilarity as the mentor of Chris Pine in the origin story “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” It’s a reminder that he broke through not as a lead but as that guy who stole Lawrence Kasdan’s 1985 Western “Silverado” from the likes of Kevin Kline and Danny Glover.
Not that he can’t be a captivating lead. He’s a good serious (albeit sometimes too taciturn) frontman, but what he really excels at is comedy. Let’s make a bold claim: Costner may think he’s a heavy thespian and artist, one who glowered up a storm while also directing “Dances with Wolves.” But drama isn’t his real thing. It’s comedy. His finest turn, the one for the history books, is, in our opinion, “Bull Durham.” Apart from being the greatest sports movie ever made — which is to say one that’s not really about sports, but about eking out a living in the Minors (and romancing an also never better Susan Sarandon) — it allows him to be funny, charming and kind of a jerk, all at once. Best of all? In an early monologue, he gets to be right about the assassination of John F. Kennedy: “I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.” Take that, future Costner director Oliver Stone.
“Durham” should have made Costner a go-to edgy, macho romantic-comedy male lead — this era’s close-enough version of Clark Gable. But he wound up in an even bigger (if inferior) baseball picture: “Field of Dreams,” in which he was unfailingly decent, nice and, admittedly, sometimes amusingly aloof. (He exudes a low-key deadpan in his scenes with a grumpy James Earl Jones.) He wound up cemented as a straight-faced, serious, even self-righteous dramatic superstar — a guy who doesn’t have much fun, who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and is often the savior to an oppressed people. (And in the case of “Dances with Wolves” — if not, at least, “Black or White” — he’s the white savior.)
But when that trend burned out, thanks to the likes of “Waterworld,” he was smart enough to bounce back into likability by reuniting with the sports comedy, as well as “Bull Durham” writer-director Ron Shelton. The 1996 golf comedy “Tin Cup” isn’t a great film, but it has a great Costner performance — his most overtly goofy and cocky, one not remotely dragged down by any sense of self-importance. It seemed he was back to having fun — but then he went and did another po-faced sports saga, this one Sam Raimi’s uncharacteristically un-fun “For the Love of the Game.”
Of course, Costner can do whatever he wants. If he acquires the biggest sense of accomplisment as an anguished dramatic thespian, that’s what he should seek. “Black or White,” for what it’s worth, allows him to play both sides: He's a serious man, but one who cuts loose more than you’d expect from a film about race relations, and in which he plays a man wrestling with his own deep-seated prejudices (and, thanks to his wife’s recent death, grief). His boozing is played as both a way to sate his demons and for comedic effect. In fact, when cornered, his character admits that he drinks mostly because he just likes being drunk. It’s a refreshingly unlikely moment and the kind of thing Costner can do when he actually wonders why someone should be so serious.