Netflix makes big movies now, though like any fresh-faced studio, their first film out of the gate was a bit awkward. Despite starring a very funny Brad Pitt doing his latest Foghorn Leghorn accent, satire “War Machine” split critics this spring, with a 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. (We kind of like it.) They’re faring far, far better with “Okja.” A globe-trotting, $50 million extravaganza about a girl and her “super-pig” (named Okja), the latest from Bong Joon-ho (“Snowpiercer”) has a smashing 82 percent, with praise for its wild, shape-shifting story, its thrilling set pieces, its blunt-funny politics and, of course, for its colossal, adorbs CGI swine.
One thing that’s not in all critics’ “pro” piles: supporting player Jake Gyllenhaal.
The Oscar-nominee is one of the few American actors mixed into the sprawling international ensemble (which also includes Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Giancarlo Esposito). He plays Dr. Johnny Wilcox, a zoologist and TV personality in too deep with our villains, the Mirando Corporation. To say Gyllenhaal is over-the-top is to suggest he knows there’s a top to go over. Looking like Groucho Marx, with his oversized mustache and specs, he bugs out his eyes like a Tex Avery cartoon horndog, sing-songs his lines like a dweeb who just hit puberty and tee-hees in a deafening falsetto. It’s Gyllenhaal like we’ve never seen him before — which doesn’t necessarily mean we needed to see him like this.
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Gyllenhaal’s spastic turn has its fans. Matt Singer of Screenrant calls him “magnificently manic.” Most are either too bewildered to make an up-or-down verdict or firmly nay. Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly says he lets “loose — maybe too loose.” Buzzfeed’s Alison Willmore calls him the film’s “weak spot.” Variety’s Peter Debruge decries a performance that’s “sweaty and screechy” and “three times as weird as it needs to be.”
Here’s where we defend Gyllenhaal in “Okja” as brave and committed, maybe even ahead-of-his-time. Thing is, we can’t quite go there. He is trying too hard. And he’s certainly no Tilda Swinton. Tilda is broad, too, playing twin sisters who run Mirando Corp, looking to turn cute, dangerous Okja into delicious human-chow. But she can do broad. She did it for director Bong before, in “Snowpiercer,” and she knows how to go huge without making viewers want to duck and cover.
For Gyllenhaal, though, this is a whole new world. We may be used to him as a serious thespian or simply a nice, quiet guy, but he has done crazy and manic before. That said, even his justly acclaimed work in “Nightcrawler” works in part because Gyllenhaal is slightly uneasy going that far. His discomfort adds to our unease being around him. And he hasn’t done many comedies; “Bubble Boy” was a long time ago. In “Okja,” you can sense him trying to unleash his inner goofball, though he comes off like your inhibited uncle trying out stand-up.
All that said, here’s why he almost works: Gyllenhaal’s unexpected, unsightly comedic turn keeps us on edge in a movie that’s all about throwing us off balance. When Gyllenhaal first shows up early in “Okja,” to meet the potentially doomed super-swine, he instantly throws the movie off. That’s as it should be. We’d been watching a cute, sweet tale of friendship between a little girl, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), and her porcine bestie. Gyllenhaal is like a bad omen — that this utopia is about to crumble, that we can no longer sure what movie we’re watching.
Moreover, an experienced cut-up might not have been able to handle what happens to Dr. Wilcox in the second act. As we quickly surmise, he’s washed-up. When he first shows up and receives starstruck stares, he comments, sadly, that at least people remember him in South Korea. He thinks his gig with Mirando Corp is his ticket to a comeback. When he realizes they’re about to get rid of him, he flips out. In the film’s second most disturbing scene — we don’t want to spoil the nightmarish climax — he gets tanked and starts removing flesh from a chained-up Okja. He doesn’t want to kill her; he just wants enough to taste some samples. This is something Gyllenhaal can do. Don’t think of this turn as a simple case of misjudgment; as with everything else in “Okja,” there’s a method to the madness.
What do you think? Do you agree? Do you disagree and think Gyllenhaal killed it? Do you disagree and think he’s the sole bum note in a flawless instant classic? Let us know!