Warning: This musing will contain minor spoilers for Water for Elephants, as well as having possible spoilers for Inglorious Basterds. You have been warned.
So... I take it you guys remember the movie of Green Hornet that came earlier this year with Seth Rogen and all those people. You know, where he becomes a superhero that pretends he's a villain?
I'll be frank about that: there was always something that bothered me about Christoph Waltz's role in that particular movie. The trouble is, I wasn't really sure what that issue was, though: Christoph Waltz got thrown into an over-the-top villain role, and he was incredibly funny at his over-the-top villain role as he was going around making random declarations about adapting to the times and how annoyed he is at the Green Hornet and all that jazz.
Thanks to Water for Elephants, I may have finally pinpointed exactly what annoyed me about Waltz's role from Green Hornet: it doesn't take any advantage of Waltz's innate charm.
Yes, Waltz is best used as an over-the-top villain, but I think he also needs to have some easy charm about him. Think back to Inglorious Basterds for a second, and more specifically his role as Colonel Hans Landa. What do you remember most about Landa? For me, I tend to remember that scene at the very beginning of the movie where he's chatting with the French farmer; in typical Tarantinian fashion, the dialogue spends a fairly long time speaking about food (in this case, milk). What really strikes me about the scene, though, is how Waltz treats the whole thing. The thing about Landa is that for a Jew Hunter, he's just so damn nice to the French farmer, and he has nothing short of praises for the guy's milk. Of course, this turns on its head when he starts speaking in English, but he puts what essentially amounts to getting in major trouble with the Nazis in such nice terms that you can't blame the farmer when he turns on the Jewish family he's hiding.
This, I think, is where Waltz's strengths lie: he is able to exude a lot of natural charm, and he's the guy you get if you want line readings of sinister stuff that doesn't actually come out as sinister.
Water for Elephants doesn't exactly get this right all the time, but there was a scene a little after the start of that movie's third act that really nailed this for me. August goes over to where Marlena and Jacob are preparing something that Marlena wanted to surprise August with. He shows up early, and then says he wants to make a new act, asking Jacob and Marlena to act it out for him. What follows is nothing short of 'oh, crap' inducing drammatics, but Waltz electrifies the scene by just speaking as if he's reading a children's story to a group of children. That is the part that gets most unsettling about that scene, I think, and aside from being the best scene of the whole movie it perfectly illustrates where Waltz is most at home.
This is something that Green Hornet lacked in his role, I think: I get that being an extremely morally depraved crime boss doesn't leave much room for that kind of nuance to the character, but I never got the same sense of charm that I got from Waltz's other two roles. I think this is because that Green Hornet focused way too hard on the running gag that Waltz's character was constantly behind the times in terms of crime, and the hammering of that punchline left little room for Waltz to really shine in what he does best.
And for his sake, I hope that more casting agents keep this in mind when casting Waltz into villain roles.
This is Herr Wozzeck Muses. I'll see you guys next time.