Paul Rudd’s stock has been on the rise lately, and along with his current streak of critical and commercial success–see his roles in I Love You, Man, Role Models, and Knocked Up–has come the widespread use of the word Everyman to describe the affable actor. But as I watched Role Models (better than I was expecting) for the first time last night, it struck me that the common thread linking Rudd’s relatable characters consists of more than their humble sense of fashion or their involvement in fantasy baseball or their general sense of decency. Beyond all of that, they are men who suffer from depression, and whose ability to be cured of that disease has a subtle yet central role in the cathartic value of the films.
The self-deprecating good guy is a classic Hollywood trope. Our favorite comedians are generally people who lack a certain degree of self-confidence and frequently point out their own flaws. But unlike many of the films in which characters display that classic quality, Rudd’s works do not necessarily see any direct comedic benefits from his moments of self-loathing. When, in Knocked Up, Pete asks Ben, “Do you ever wonder how somebody could even like you?”, it is not akin to Woody Allen making a crack about his therapist. Or consider the scene in Role Models where Rudd’s Danny is confronted by his estranged girlfriend: “You hate yourself, but you still think you’re better than everyone else.” There is no punch-line here, no retort that brings comedic relief to that moment of dark fact-facing. Even going back to his first wide release, Clueless, we can see in Rudd’s characters a propensity for, well, sadness.
Of course, in each of these films, Rudd’s character must and does overcome his depressive bout, often due to a self-realization that involves taking full stock of his surroundings and acknowledging that there are people around who are, in fact, willing to love him. Central to the relatively new idea of Rudd as a romantic lead is that his characters, when we meet them, are generally embodiments of so much of the unhappiness that we feel at our worst moments. And, it must be said, the unhappiness comes off as very real. These are characters for whom, as Danny points out to a group of schoolchildren in Role Models, life has not gone as planned. They experience the kind of hopelessness and defeat that comes with feeling stuck in a world that is mundane and full of annoyances that add up to feel like a heavy weight. Because of this, they ignore or mishandle the relationships around them and must be forcibly reminded of why life is worth living.
I would not dare to say that this pattern has anything to do with Rudd’s own psychology. That kind of assumption is certainly better left at the door. What I do think it is important to acknowledge, though, is that the appeal of this actor, as mentioned earlier, goes beyond appearance and the nonchalance he brings to his roles. For whatever reason, the larger part of Rudd’s characters exhibit signs of true, unmistakable adulthood depression, the kind that often goes uncorrected and is confused for the normal emotional reaction to losing youth. And while I can’t speak for every viewer, I am willing to bet that, as adults, the majority of us have had to deal with similar feelings, ones that serve as a constant reminder of aging and the regrets we’ve built up over the years. The rare and wonderful thing about Rudd’s roles, though, is that these feelings are never accepted in the way that say, an Al Bundy’s cynical, punchy views on marriage might be. With the Apatow/Wain formula, comedy is allowed to be temporarily suspended in the face of serious issues–and be sure that depression, while less of an overt focal point, is just as much at the heart of these movies as unwanted pregnancies or mandatory community service. In the case of Rudd’s roles, mental instability is never the plot-driving issue, and therefore, it slips to the back of our minds as we witness the resolving of the more premise-driven problems. But there it is, right under our eyes–the gradual self-healing of a man who, at his lowest, resembles the part of ourselves from which we try our best to escape, the one that sees little value in an average day and does little to convince loved ones otherwise. When Rudd’s character, like a less melodramatic George Bailey, comes around to see the bright side of things, we may let out a sigh of relief and hope that the Everyman is an accurate reflection.