I haven't written one of these in a few years, so some explanation might be in order before diving in. Despite the flippant title, the Strange Sick Sad Career mantle is bestowed only upon actors I genuinely like, such as Jonny Lee Miller and Michael Rosenbaum and Ioan Gruffudd… and, now, Thomas Gibson, who is freaking amazing in his role as ultra-grim FBI unit chief Aaron Hotchner on the CBS crime procedural Criminal Minds. How amazing? Consider this: I voted for Gibson with a clear conscience when he went head-to-head against Fringe's magnificent John Noble in Entertainment Weekly's Under-Appreciated Entertainer of 2010 poll, an honor Gibson went on to win.
So… what’s strange or sick or sad about Gibson’s career? Fair question. After all, he’s spent thirteen of the past sixteen years starring in well-received prime-time network television shows (three seasons on Chicago Hope, five on Dharma and Greg, and he’s presently well into his sixth on Criminal Minds), which is pretty impressive. Just take a peek at his film work, though. All respect to the talented Mr. Gibson, but if you’re an impeccably-pedigreed actor who puts your Juilliard training to work in films like The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas or, god save us all, The Monkey King, you’ve got to expect to receive a few snark-filled softballs lobbed in your general direction.
While he’s better known for his work in episodic television, Gibson has been in a hell of a lot of theatrical releases and made-for-TV movies. I cut a fair swath through his filmography, but there are still plenty of his films I haven’t seen, either because I was unable to track them down or because life seemed too short to fritter it away in that manner. An example of the latter is Men of War (1994). While I enjoy the occasional mid-1990s direct-to-video Dolph Lundgren vehicle as much as the next girl, I didn’t make much headway with this one; I watched long enough to establish that Gibson was playing a sinister yuppie named Warren (side note: he plays an awful lot of yuppies, sinister or otherwise), and that was plenty for me. I also bailed out early on a couple of terribly earnest made-for-cable movies: an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s The Inheritance (1997), and Nightmare Street (1998), in which he plays a kindly doctor who tends to amnesiac/possible conspiracy victim Sherilyn Fenn.
And to my deep regret, I couldn’t find a copy of Evil Never Dies (2003), a made-for-TBS extravaganza in which, per Gibson's filmography on the TCM website, he plays, “...a down-and-out police detective reassigned to campus security after the death of his wife at the hands of a serial killer only to discover a deranged scientist (John Waters) reanimating the her [sic] murderer's corpse." Oh, my. There's a dizzying amount of awfulness and/or awesomeness contained in that description; had I been able to watch it, it surely would be included here. Bonus points: It co-stars Katherine Heigl.
Gibson made his big-screen debut as Tom Cruise’s nemesis and chief rival for Nicole Kidman’s affections in Far and Away, Ron Howard’s 1992 epic about Irish immigrants settling in the New World. Granted, the film is a dud -- despite the lavish sets and gorgeous locations, it’s overwrought and goofy -- but still, this could have been a home run for him. Gibson usually plays villains well, and as written, this is a gleefully despicable part. He disrupts Cruise’s father’s funeral and burns down his home! He challenges Cruise to pistols at dawn! He snarls lines like, “The warning’s been given thrice!” Alas, he’s dismayingly restrained, keeping to the sidelines and hiding behind an oversized mustache. While I can understand the urge to keep a low profile in this nonsense (personal dignity issues, you see), he still sticks out, mostly because he’s the only one in 19th-century Ireland speaking with an American accent.
It’s tempting to be super-glib here and proclaim this mess to be (ahem) far and away the worst film of his career, but The Monkey King still looms in his future like an unpopped blister, shiny and new and bulging with barely-contained badness.
Gibson had a big, meaty role as duplicitous bisexual Beauchamp Day in the 1993 miniseries Tales of the City, PBS’s faithful adaptation of the first book in Armistead Maupin's series of novels about San Francisco in the 1970s. Now this is what I mean about Gibson making a good villain. An entertainingly nasty piece of work, Beauchamp is beautiful and charismatic enough to lure both Laura Linney and Billy Campbell into his bed, yet vile enough to make them regret it later. He reprised the role for More Tales of the City, which aired on Showtime in 1998; it’s worth a gander, if only to see Gibson spitefully referring to sweet-natured, fresh-faced Linney as “Farrah Fawcett-Dumbshit” and flaunting his ability to cock a single eyebrow.
I’m going to go ahead and boldly proclaim Love & Human Remains (1993) to be the best film Gibson has made to date. Even though it was released almost two decades ago, I don’t mean to damn him with faint praise -- I just mean it’s a mighty good film. Directed by Academy Award nominee Denys Arcand (The Barbarian Invasions, Jesus of Montreal), with a script adapted from Brad Fraser’s stage play, it features some marvelous performances and plenty of great dialogue. It’s both quotable (“I want more than just sex.” “That’s why God invented television”) and tawdry. Want to see a leather-clad, whip-wielding Mia Kirshner flogging away at some bound and naked sap? Want to see Gibson, stoned off his gourd, getting busy with a cute guy in the back room of a nightclub? This is the film for you.
Love and Human Remains takes place in a chilly, dark Canadian city (which is never identified by name, though the film was shot in Montreal). Gibson plays David, a former television star who currently waits tables, which he claims to find more artistically fulfilling than acting. Openly gay, David is also witty, jaded, charming, and gleefully obnoxious; it’s a great role, and Gibson tears into it with gusto.
David, who shuns close relationships, is more important to his friends than they are to him. His neurotic roommate Candy (Ruth Marshall), who used to date him before he sorted out his sexual identity, is still in love with him, even as she conducts her own experiments with same-sex hookups. Kane (Matthew Ferguson), an ostensibly straight teenaged busboy at the restaurant where David works, is well on his way to developing a whopping crush on him. David’s best friend Bernie (Cameron Bancroft) is a misogynistic straight dude with a very nasty hobby, while another friend, Benita (Mia Kirshner), is a professional dominatrix who also happens to be psychic. Throw in a totally random subplot about a serial killer who’s somehow connected to David, and the whole thing starts to seem like a cracked-out, sexed-up, impossibly awesome prequel to Criminal Minds, set back in the days when Hotch was young and slutty and wore a lot of eyeliner and leather.
In many ways, 1994's Sleep With Me is, for good and for ill, the quintessential 1990s independent film. Directed by Rory Kelly, it has six credited screenwriters, each of whom was reportedly responsible for a particular sequence. The main thrust of the story concerns a love triangle between a married couple (Meg Tilly and Eric Stoltz) and Stoltz's best friend (Craig Sheffer), who bears a torch for Tilly. Indie staples Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, and Adrienne Shelley round out the cast. Gibson plays Nigel, a chain-smoking expat with glasses and center-parted bangs who hangs out with Stoltz and Sheffer and speaks in a hit-or-miss English accent. Smug and sincere, exasperating and entertaining, it's perhaps best remembered for Quentin Tarantino’s cameo as a party guest who goes on an elaborate riff about how Top Gun is an extended metaphor for homosexuality. You know what it should be best remembered for? The use of Pere Ubu's excellent song “Wasted” over the closing credits.
Gibson appeared (along with his future Criminal Minds costar Mandy Patinkin) on the first three seasons of CBS’s Chicago Hope (1994-1998). While I never watched the series while it was on the air, my research shows that Gibson played a talented but arrogant surgeon named Dr. Danny Nyland, who is fondly known by viewers as "Dr. Penishead."
I find this fascinating.
The series isn’t available on DVD, but in the interest of completion, I watched a single lonely episode on Hulu in which Dr. Nyland, trapped under heavy gunfire in a gang-ridden neighborhood, performs emergency surgery with a power drill while bitching about missing his ski vacation. While hospital dramas mostly bore the snot out of me, this was mighty entertaining.
Gibson had a small role as a benign yuppie in Barcelona (1994), the second installment in Whit Stillman’s acclaimed trio of films (the others being Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco) about the lives of wealthy young urbanites. According to the director/cast commentary on the DVD for The Last Days of Disco, legendary director Stanley Kubrick was so impressed with Gibson's work in Barcelona (fleeting as it is -- he only pops up in the last fifteen minutes) that he offered him a role in his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which reunited Gibson with his Far and Away costars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Gibson appears in only a couple of scenes, playing yet another mild-mannered yuppie. His character is essentially a mirror image of Cruise’s, which leads to an odd factoid: Cruise and Gibson were born on the same day in the same year. Factoring in their vague physical resemblance and the way their careers have randomly intersected, it’s tempting to view Gibson as the Bizarro World version of Cruise, or Cruise as the Bizarro World Gibson. Though Gibson is unusually tall for an actor while Cruise is... not, they mysteriously appear to be exactly the same height in their scenes together in Eyes Wide Shut. Whether this was accomplished through Lord of the Rings-style perspective trickery or through the strategic use of apple crates is open for discussion.
So how, exactly, does someone go from “handpicked to appear in a Kubrick film” to “starring in The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas”? What’s the thought process there?
A prequel to the 1994 live-action Flintstones movie, 2000’s Viva Rock Vegas recast the leads (The Full Monty's Mark Addy steps in as Fred, with Kristen Johnston as Wilma, Jane Krakowski as Betty, and one of the lesser Baldwins as Barney). It also stars Alan Cumming, the poor bastard, in a tour-de-force dual role as both the Great Gazoo and “Mick Jagged,” lead singer of The Stones.
(There are those out there who, upon hearing that Duran Duran’s John Taylor has a cameo as the prehistoric Keith Richards to Cumming’s Mick, will immediately bump this up to the top of their Netflix queues. To them I say: You are my kind of people.)
Gibson plays Chip Rockefeller, a charismatic casino magnate who schemes to wed Wilma and get his mitts on her family’s vast fortune. He spends most of the film slinking about in a knee-length sleeveless black sheath, complete with bow tie and tuxedo cuffs; offhand, you’d think watching him spend an entire movie sans pants would be a cheap thrill, but formal muumuus aren’t a flattering look on anybody.
The film is, of course, terrible, but here’s the weird thing: He’s sort of great in it. Here, he does what he should have done in Far and Away -- he brings it. He’s sparkly and mesmerizing, all slitted eyelids and arrogant sneers and sinister chortles.
Does he save the movie? Oh, hell, no -- it’s a live-action Flintstones film. It features a scene involving a farting brontosaurus (apatosaurus for purists). It’s unsalvageable, Gibson’s effervescent performance notwithstanding. I will say this, however: I can’t imagine slogging through Far and Away a second time, but I’ve watched The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas more than twice. And, er, I’ve giggled my way through it every time.
Criminal Minds aside, Gibson's probably still best known for his five seasons on the ABC sitcom Dharma and Greg (1997-2002), in which he starred as straitlaced Greg Montgomery, devoted husband to Jenna Elfman’s freewheeling Dharma Finkelstein. It’s a primetime network sitcom, so it probably goes without saying that it’s a little on the tame and toothless side, but nonetheless, it’s cute. The first couple of seasons are as pleasing as a good Prosecco, bubbly and crisp and refreshing. Alas, the latter seasons are, more often than not, jug wine served in a Dixie cup, as squabbles, deceptions, and tedious real-world problems (money troubles, unplanned babies, debilitating car accidents, ill-advised trysts with Kevin Sorbo) chipped away at the simple escapism and wish-fulfillment upon which the show was founded. Still, even in episodes where the writing lets them down, Elfman and Gibson sell the stuffing out of their characters. The mad chemistry between these two likeable kids -- both tall, both leggy, both gorgeous -- carries the show.
Gibson reunited with his Love and Human Remains director Denys Arcand for Stardom (2000), a crisply effective mock-documentary about Tina Menzhal (Jessica Paré), a hockey player plucked from obscurity in cold rural Canada and transformed into an internationally-famous model. Wholly unable to process her new fame, Tina becomes involved with a couple of powerful and much-older suitors, played by Dan Aykroyd and Frank Langella. Gibson appears as her high-powered agent, who’s so soft-spoken and gentle amidst the drama and chaos of Tina's new lifestyle that it takes a while to figure out he's kind of a sleazeball.
Psycho Beach Party (2000), a cheerful mishmash of 1960s beach party films and low-budget slasher flicks, stars Six Feet Under’s adorable Lauren Ambrose as Chicklet, an easygoing surfer chick who suffers from a drastic -- and possibly murderous -- case of multiple personality disorder. Charles Busch adapted his cult stage play Gidget Goes Psychotic for the big screen and donned a dress to play Policewoman Monica Stark, who investigates a series of grisly beach murders, which may or may not have been committed by one of Chicklet’s alter egos. The film is tacky and ragged, and the jokes don’t always hit, but it’s got enviable energy and drive, and the entire cast, which includes Buffy’s Nicholas Brendon, Amy Adams, and Matt Keeslar, seems to be having a smashing good time.
Gibson plays the Great Kanaka, the heppest cat in Malibu, who strikes up a lively sadomasochistic relationship with one of Chicklet’s more assertive personalities. While this bit of casting seems totally nuts on the surface, it starts making a twisted kind of sense after a while. If you’re tossing about names for the perfect actor to play a domination-craving surf god who speaks in rhyming couplets, odds are pretty good that, sooner or later, someone’s going to say, “Hey, why don’t we see what Gibson’s doing this month?”
I don’t know whether anything has since come along to claim this dubious crown, but rumor has it that the 2001 broadcast of NBC’s The Lost Empire, known also by the alternate title The Monkey King, earned the lowest ratings of any network miniseries in television history.
That sounds about right.
Gibson stars as Nick, an American scholar living in China, who encounters a mysterious woman (Bai Ling) who turns out to be the living incarnation of the Buddhist goddess Kuan Yin. She lures him to ancient China’s fantastical underworld and entrusts him with a vital mission: to prevent dark forces from destroying the 16th century classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, or modern civilization will cease to exist.
Journey to the West, which chronicles the magical adventures of a quartet of travelers from China to India, is ripe ground for storytelling -- it’s been depicted on film many times, and it’s the basis of the manga and anime series Dragonball and Gensomaden Saiyuki. A thumping good miniseries could probably be adapted from it… but this isn't it.
Nick soon gets caught up in his own version of the journey, banding together with the titular Monkey King (glacial, elegant Russell Wong, his gorgeous face obscured behind glued-on fur), plus Pigsy (Eddie Marsan in full-on pig prosthetics) and Friar Sand (Kabir Bedi), to protect the original manuscript. There are training montages. There are flashbacks. There’s an unnecessary voice-over. The script, which was written by David Henry Hwang, Tony Award-winning playwright of M. Butterfly, is padded out to a numbing, bewildering three hours. Nick, sadly, isn’t a strong enough character to retain audience focus throughout it. His salient characteristics are negatives: He’s reckless, blustery, and entitled, and if there’s any more to him than that, we don’t get much of a chance to see it.
All of Gibson’s best characters have been notable for their depth: Love and Human Remains’ David is a nice guy underneath his cynical posturing, Greg Montgomery has the soul of a kinky rebel struggling to break free from his conservative trappings, and Beauchamp Day and Chip Rockefeller both have rotten cores beneath their colorful candy coatings. (Holy hell, did I just lump Viva Rock Vegas in with Gibson’s best roles? Yes, I did. Did I mean to do that? Yes, I think so). And we haven’t yet touched on the multi-layered Dobosh torte that is Criminal Minds’ Hotch…
Nick, on the other hand, exists on only one level, and it’s kind of an irksome one. Even so, Kuan Yin falls deeply in love, to the extent that she’s willing to surrender both her divine abilities and her immortality to be with him. This strikes me as a rotten trade. Nick is plenty cute, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to surrender half my closet space if he wanted to move in with me.
To be fair, The Monkey King has an interesting premise and moments of genuine beauty. Kuan Yin goes through a dizzying array of dazzling costumes, the mystical Chinese underworld is created in gorgeous detail, and the action sequences are brisk and fun. It’s also got a stellar band of fantastical malformed villains, all of whom look like they’d fit right in with the nightmare-fodder creatures from Pan’s Labyrinth. About halfway through the miniseries, Nick falls into their clutches, whereupon they decide, sensibly, to fry him up in butter and eat him. At this point, I started having more enthusiasm for this whole sorry venture. Pro tip: If your viewers perk up at the prospect of the villains butchering and eating your hero, it might be a sign something has gone terribly wrong with your production.
Forget the whole business about serial killers. Set aside that it’s essentially Silence of the Lambs: The Series. At its core, Criminal Minds (2005-present) is a show about people -- smart, decent people -- in the process of being destroyed by their soul-crushing jobs. These are strong characters played by strong actors, anchored by an incredible performance by Gibson as Supervisory Special Agent Hotchner, known to one and all as Hotch.
Upon initial viewing, Hotch comes across as a little too good to be real, like he’s the triumphant final product of the FBI’s top-secret experiments in bioengineering the consummate Fed. He’s smart. He’s diplomatic. He's always impeccably groomed. He's an expert marksman, interrogator, and hostage negotiator. He's grim and unsmiling to a ludicrous extent -- in years past, Hotch used to smile a couple times each season, but now, as his reasons to grin have been stripped from him one by one, they’ve become an even rarer occurrence. At the same time, he’s changed physically as well, becoming harder, gaunter, and grimmer with every season.
Watch a few episodes, though, and the vast charm of Hotch bubbles to the surface. Hotch is exceptionally kind and gentle -- in fact, as far as his team members are concerned, he’s pretty much a marshmallow. He can also be damn funny, with a dry wit that comes out of nowhere. Hotch loses his temper as rarely as he smiles, but when he does, it’s breathtaking in its intensity. Hotch can get scary fast, and it’s best not to be on the receiving end of his anger.
Criminal Minds has smartly avoided weighing its characters down with elaborate histories, instead focusing on building strong, current character development and doling out only careful bits of backstory. It was implied once, in a very early episode, that Hotch had an abusive childhood, which was then never mentioned again. It hasn’t been necessary. It doesn’t take an FBI profiler to realize something went very wrong in Hotch’s formative years.
To recycle a comparison I’ve made before, Hotch is the heir apparent to Edward James Olmos’s Lt. Castillo from Miami Vice. For those who haven’t experienced the Miami Vice zeitgeist: a) start making room in your Netflix queue, and b) in a nutshell, Castillo never smiled, never raised his voice, slept in his office, and was secretly a ninja. Sound familiar? Olmos won a richly-deserved Emmy for the role. Gibson, however, has yet to be nominated, despite some promising buzz on that subject following Season Five’s Hotchpocalypse, in which Hotch stared into the abyss, and the abyss stared back at him, rolled out the welcome mat, sent him a muffin basket, and asked him why it took so long to get there. Too bad. He’s more than earned it.