“I’m not really all that smart, so I don’t really have anything to lead with except my heart.” — Justin Timberlake
Nobody is saying that he can’t dance. No one is saying his singing voice doesn’t make listeners sexually develop or feel certain things when he slides into the falsetto. Nobody is suggesting that he does not look like he should be good at acting, or even that he isn’t funny in the SNL Digital Shorts.1 So why is it sometimes so hard to watch Justin Timberlake act?
A super-high-achieving person is never, ever satisfied. I’m talking about the Bill Clinton-types. The ones who start achieving and just cannot stop. It is impossible to get enough positive feedback, enough confirmation that they are talented, worshipped, and loved. Somebody as high-achieving and talented as Justin Timberlake has to try to be great (not just decent, but great), at everything that strikes him. And he can’t enjoy something if he isn’t great at it. He seems to relish the constant challenge of new problems, particularly ones he can’t solve right away.2 He knows he could just go back to making music, but he won’t.
At this point in his career, Justin has finally figured out how to manage being “Justin Timberlake” in public. He does a Playboy interview solo and a joint-interview with Mila Kunis for Elle. He plays to men but then he also plays to women (without being condescending) because he knows that female fans are the people who actually buy his products, the ones who made him a huge star and then kept him in business. He recognizes that there are differences between what plays well in Playboy and what plays well in Elle, but he doesn’t go overboard trying to provoke or prove himself in either outlet. After trashing Britney Spears publicly for years, he now says nice things about her. He seems to have grown up slightly, to have figured out restraint.
He tells Elle that his fantasy woman is “a pretty girl with a nasty mouth”, balancing out the predictable shallow demand for a physically attractive woman with the less-often emphasized but equally (face it, more) important expectation that she be good at talking. He wants a charismatic woman because he himself is hypercharismatic. He has no interest in doing all the entertaining himself. He wants equally to be entertained.3
Justin’s arrogance is now tempered with humility. Too much humility would be wrong because it would ignore how genuinely talented he is. Justin makes apologies for not being more intelligent but then he displays a lot of intelligence, especially when talking about things that interest him, like the Bill Withers documentary. He answers Playboy‘s question about his black fan base correctly, unlike fellow purveyor of blue-eyed soul John Mayer (who bobbled it spectacularly4).
Timberlake is instantly more appealing as an actor than Ashton Kutcher, because I don’t care if Ashton Kutcher ever gets vulnerable enough to show me something real about himself. Kutcher looks the part of a leading man, but he’s just not a good enough actor for me to ever invest. But Justin Timberlake has too much potential. So much comes so easily to him when a camera and performance are involved, it seems impossible that he could be bad at anything. He can’t deal with the disconnect of the reality that he might not be equally great at everything.
Can Timberlake get his adopted talent of acting up to the level of his natural talents for singing and dancing? Can he master a different skill set using the considerable skill sets he possesses? Or does he just not have “it” onscreen for some reason, even though he clearly has infinite “it” onstage? What is it that sucks out swag from some charismatic people and magnifies it in others when they get on film? Is it just if they don’t play themselves? Madonna is great in Desperately Seeking Susan and A League of Their Own for the same reasons Timberlake is good as Sean Parker in The Social Network. They both were playing to type. But Timberlake’s decent performance is only impressive given how bad he had been in other movies. His acting is graded on a very sharp curve.
Justin is also very openly a mama’s boy. He seems in touch with his feminine side because he kind of had no choice but to be, having been pushed into youth beauty pageants and Mickey Mouse clubbery and all. He has what Rick James once called “bitch power” in Creem, which is the power that comes from men knowing that their girlfriends want to have sex with you. Other men are afraid of men like that, but they also respect it more than anything.5
He is too famous for your first thought not to be “Oh hey, it’s Justin Timberlake” every time he appears in a movie. He cannot disappear into a role, or even casually inhabit one. He is Justin Timberlake even when he is doing something that opposes his public persona, as in Bad Teacher.6 He is still playing off of it. He might work in Friends With Benefits precisely because he seems to be making absolutely no effort to hide his Justin Timberlakeyness.
He is actually very good in Bad Teacher, because the role (as a substitute teacher who serves as the gold-digging main character’s object of acquisition) emphasizes all the things that usually work against him in his acting: the stiffness of his dialogue delivery, his eagerness to please, the more-than-slight smarminess. It works because he lets Cameron Diaz shine. He knows that she is a gifted comedian and that he is just starting to learn.
Still, he slips up a few times in Bad Teacher, smirking or moving in a way that makes you remember you’re watching Justin Timberlake, who can’t help but be awesome at dancing. The movie allows him these passing moments of sexiness without destroying the core of his character. His character is more complex than the movie initially lets on. If the biggest male pop star in the world were also the greatest actor in the world well, that would hardly be fair, would it?
Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.