Movies, Television

The Curious Case of Jennifer Garner

You may ask yourself, as action revenge thriller Peppermint is released in the UK with a limited release, why Jennifer Garner never became the Next Big Thing.

Pierre Morel’s thriller—from a director who has, as of yet, failed to capture the same iconic formula he developed with Liam Neeson in Taken—sees Garner play Riley North, a mother on a quest for revenge against the cartel who murdered her family. This certainly is not Alias: The Movie (we already got that after all with Mission Impossible 3) but it does see a return for Garner to the kind of picture she assidiously seemed to avoid since her breakout role in JJ Abrams’ underrated ‘spy-fi’ series Alias at the turn of the Noughties. With the odd exception, Garner has never capitalised on the renown of her role as super spy Sydney Bristow.

While appearing in Alias, Garner was spotted by none other than Steven Spielberg, who offered her the role of a call-girl in his jaunty caper Catch Me If You Can in 2002, and he too made an observation which failed to ultimately pay off:

“The first time I saw Jennifer, I immediately said she would be the next superstar. I knew she was locked into the series, but I wondered if she would do this small role. She came in and worked for just one day and was simply remarkable. “

Steven Spielberg

Spielberg is not exactly someone without some level of nouse when it comes to making stars out of workday or jobbing actors, and while often he sticks with the same mega stars he knows and trusts (Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise etc…) he equally will take a gamble on up and comers such as Tye Sheridan most recently in Ready Player One. He saw in Garner what it seems Abrams—Spielberg’s chief ingenue and cover artist—did after she appeared for a couple of episodes of his first show runner experience, Felicity: star potential. Alias didn’t exactly become a worldwide hit but by the end of the show, Garner was earning over 100k more per episode than when she began and the series gave her enough of a profile to launch a major movie career.

Alias (2001)

A Different Star is Born

The biggest irony of Alias is that this didn’t happen to Garner, or her erstwhile co-star Michael Vartan, but rather one of the original ensemble who the show dumped after just two seasons: Bradley Cooper. Seeing him headlining Clint Eastwood movies or being feted as the next big actor-director for the upcoming A Star Is Born remake remains the strangest thing for any Alias fan, to whom he will always be the lovelorn, shaggy-dog journalist Will Tippin. Leaving Aliasmay have been one of the best things that ever happened to Cooper and while he certainly didn’t ‘steal’ Garner’s career by any means, you wonder if she should not have tasted the same Hollywood A-list power he did.

Why this did not happen could be for several reasons. Toward the end of Alias, Garner married an A-list Hollywood star in Ben Affleck, after having appeared briefly in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor in which he of course starred, and swiftly fell pregnant. Instead of Alias writing her out, her pregnancy was incorporated into that of her character Sydney for what became the show’s truncated final season, and many fans were subsequently quick to claim ‘Ben Affleck Killed Alias’, which is probably a little unfairAlias was already winding down by its fifth year, having reached the sacrosanct 100 episodes needed for network syndication, and Garner no doubt had one eye on a transition to film from her TV roots.

That transition came with Affleck’s help in 2003’s Daredevil, the first adaptation of the blind Marvel Comics vigilante, in which she played Matt Murdock’s on-off love interest/nemesis Elektra Natchios. As casting went, despite not being ethnically accurate, it made sense and did exactly what you might expect for Garner’s career: tap into the action theatrics she had honed on Alias over five seasons. Daredevil was released, of course, during Alias’ run, when Garner was hot property, and while in it’s pre-Marvel Cinematic Universe form it received decidedly mixed reviews, the box office was powerful enough to guarantee if not Daredevila sequel, then Garner her own spin-off vehicle in 2005’s Elektra. That, sadly, not only garnered (excuse the pun) poor reviews, but equally poor box office which put paid to Garner’s role as a bonafide, successful Marvel super heroine.

A Youthful Approach

Arguably the role she became the most famous for, aside from Alias, and certainly in cinematic terms, was 2004’s romantic comedy 13 Going on 30– her first major leading screen role. She displays a winning, likeable, homely level of all-American charm in what is, essentially, a female version of Big, to the degree she was described in reviews as:

“America’s next Sweetheart; she has the same magic mix of allure and accessibility that the job calls for.”

Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post

It is entirely possible, after the success of 13 Going on 30 and the failure of Elektra, Garner decided that the innate warmth inherent in her best performances (even in the resolute and tough role of Sydney) was the better path to follow in terms of her career prospects.

Following a year off upon marrying Affleck and having their first child, she edged closer to the dark side by appearing in Peter Berg’s 2007 action thriller The Kingdom, as a fairly sullen FBI investigator opposite Jamie Foxx, but she resonates much more as a supporting player in Jason Reitman’s Juno, which made a name for Ellen Page as the caustic eponymous teenager, with Garner the nice but stiff housewife alongside Jason Bateman who desperately wants to be a mother. Much like appearing in a film for Berg, who she worked with and knew from a guest role in Alias, the same was true of Ricky Gervais, who sought her out for his conceptual comedy The Invention of Lying in 2009, he having sought her out because she is “always happy and always pleasant to everyone” and he wanted her to play against type. Nonetheless, the film was a commercial and critical failure.

At this stage, why didn’t Garner then choose to try and go back her roots? To the formula that had made her famous to begin with? Action and adventure.

The Invention of Lying (2009)

It’s hard to say. She seemed intent on appearing in dramas or romantic comedies, to a lesser or greater extent. This wasn’t always a bad decision. A major role in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club alongside an Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey certainly bought her significant cred, being one of the most powerful films of that year, while in 2015 she appeared in Al Pacino’s Danny Collinswhich while only being a modest success was critically applauded. Beyond that, if you take in her filmography over the last decade, you wade largely amidst a sea of forgettable films which barely made a dent in the box office or amongst cinephiles – Draft DayThe Odd Life of Timothy GreenValentine’s DayNine LivesMiracles From Heaven, and even the Russell Brand remake of Arthur!

What happened to the Jennifer Garner who kicked arse and took names for five years in Alias? Where did she go? Once she became a mother in real life, Garner seemed intent on similar roles in many of the pictures she has made – even up to this year’s excellent romantic comedy Love, Simon. If anyone can almost be accused of stealing Garner’s career, it could well be Keri Russell. The star of Felicity, Abrams didn’t pick her to then play Sydney in Alias, but he did briefly throw her into Mission Impossible III, before she landed her signature role in critically-lauded 80’s set spy series The Americans, in which she essentially plays the same role as Lena Olin as Sydney’s mother in Alias did in the show’s backstory, in a series which very much feels like an evolved, peak TV era version of Alias itself. Russell is now about to appear once again for Abrams in Star Wars IX. Her star is on the ascendant, at only four years younger, whereas Garner seems to have gotten lost over the years.

Sadly, reviews for Peppermint haven’t been pretty so far, but if this marks a return for Garner to the kind of action roles fans may wish she could have counterbalanced with evolving into a modern American mother figure in mid-range cinema, she may yet be due a renaissance. Who knows? Given how TV is want to revive itself, we may even see an older Sydney Bristow again one day. Either way, Jennifer Garner’s curious career feels one of missed potential and you hope, as she heads for middle age, that might yet still change.

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