The Incredible Shrinking Jude Law

Jude Law in 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows'

Remember when Jude Law was hot? And not just hunky looking but rather hot as in his status as a leading man was soaring. Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

Law lately pops up more often in supporting roles than in leading parts. Sizable secondary roles, yes, but he’s not getting top billing. Take his current turn as Dr. John Watson in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, in which Robert Downey Jr. reprises the title role. The sequel was No. 1 at the box office this past weekend, though its $40 million gross in the U.S. was considered a disappointment because it was $22 million less than the first Sherlock pulled in on its opening weekend in 2009.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77UdYWDkgVE

The London-born actor, who turns 40 next week, on Dec. 29, is also currently on screens with a small but key role in Hugo, director Martin Scorsese’s 3D family film, which is also considered an underperformer at the box office. (Hugo, a costly film to make, has grossed only $42 million worldwide since opening just before Thanksgiving.) And Law scored with both critics and audiences earlier in the fall when he portrayed a self-serving medical blogger in Contagion, where he was part of the movie’s large ensemble cast.

When and how did Law’s star wattage dim? For Law, the crucial year came in 2004, when he starred in six movies in a row: I Heart Huckabees, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Alfie, Closer, The Aviator and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Sky, Alfie and Closer rested especially heavily on his shoulders and all three tanked at the box office, with critics yawning and moviegoers staying away in droves. In Hollywood’s view, Law was given every chance and was found wanting.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6OjJGiXumo

It didn’t help when Chris Rock, who was serving as host at the Oscars in early 2005, piled on the scorn. In his opening monologue, Rock asked, “Who is Jude Law? Why is he in every movie I have seen the last four years? He’s in everything. Even the movies he’s not acting in. If you look at the credits, he makes cupcakes, or something.” Sean Penn, when he came on stage later in the evening as a presenter, felt compelled to defend Law’s acting talents.

Despite Penn, it wasn’t Law’s acting talent that was the issue. Rather, it was his star power or lack thereof. It would seem that he just doesn’t have that mysterious, indefinable quality that makes a star a star. Whatever it is, it’s the difference between just another leading man, no matter how accomplished, and Tom Cruise (back in the day) or Will Smith, for whom moviegoers around the world will line up just because those guys are in a film.

Law has continued to work and will for years to come. But he is likely, in the long run, to have a career modeled more along the lines of Jeremy Irons than Michael Caine. Expect him to show up in movies that are class rather than mass. His next movie is a perfect example: he’ll be playing the husband whom Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) cuckolds – Aaron Johnson is playing the dashing Count Vronsky – in the latest film version of Tolstoy’s classic Russian romantic drama.

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What’s your favorite Jude Law movie?

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