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Naomi Watts is Due for a Bit of a Comeback

Bottom line: the actress needs to pick some better projects.
By  · Published on May 16th, 2018

Bottom line: the actress needs to pick some better projects.

Unless your name is David Lynch, you probably haven’t been giving Naomi Watts her due lately. Watts absolutely killed it as Janey-E in the Twin Peaks revival last year, bringing her signature emotional availability to a volatile but captivating role.

However, it’s safe to say that although Watts’s performance in Twin Peaks will undoubtedly go down as one of her best and most memorable, she has also unfortunately suffered several career lows in recent years. What was meant to be a huge Netflix serial vehicle for Watts — Gypsy — ended badly. The series suffers from feeling distinctly unremarkable despite the combined efforts of Watts, Billy Crudup, and Sophie Cookson. For a reportedly sexy show, Gypsy is mostly just draggy and generic. The show was cancelled after a single season.

Some of Watts’s recent big-screen work also leaves plenty to be desired. She somehow agreed to appear in not one but two Divergent movies, with her second installment in the franchise being a box office bomb. The hilariously uneven Book of Henry is another frustrating flop. Not only is the story completely bonkers, but nobody even wanted to give it the time of day. The Book of Henry made just $4.6 million against its $10 million budget.

To be fair, some of Watts’s films aren’t even the worst of the worst. Sadly, they just simply aren’t as good as they should have been. Destin Daniel Cretton’s The Glass Castle is an example of this, wherein a slew of pitch-perfect performances is tainted by a mishandling of the source material. The Glass Castle was at least a moderate box office success, making $21.7 million.

Despite spending the last couple of paragraphs bemoaning the state of Watts’s filmography, there really is no denying that she can be a great actress if she works with the right people. Her track record with distinguished and unique filmmakers demonstrates that the material just has to live up to her talents. Take a quick refresher course in films such as Mulholland Drive, Eastern PromisesBirdman21 Grams, and The Impossible — the last two of which brought her Oscar nominations for Best Actress.

Watts’s Academy-recognized work acknowledges her ability to tug at our heartstrings as a loving mother. However, my personal favorites from the bunch happen to be Mulholland Drive and Eastern Promises. Watts is a proper chameleon in Mulholland Drive, going from clear-eyed optimism to deep-seated bitterness so unexpectedly. Eastern Promises is a far more straightforward role, but even amidst towering men in the world of the Russian mob, Watts holds her own via an inner fire of justice and empathy.

In her most acclaimed work, Watts has been allowed to portray people who are abrasive, mysterious, loving, obsessive and above all, honest. On the flip side, they also beg the question of why she seemingly can’t get stellar roles more consistently when she has demonstrated invaluable abilities as an actor.

Word from The Hollywood Reporter is that Watts will star in a new film from the man behind The Purge movie series, James DeMonaco. Nope, they’re not doing horror together. Watts has been cast to play a mom in a coming-of-age period drama titled Once Upon a Time in Staten Island alongside Frank Grillo, who plays the protagonist’s father.

The synopsis of Once Upon a Time in Staten Island goes as follows: The year is 1982 in Staten Island. Amidst the release of Rocky III, an average teenager navigates the Rocky Balboa fever of his town in order to “embark on a quest” with his family. DeMonaco will direct from his own script.

The last thing anybody would expect from DeMonaco is a coming-of-age period drama and admittedly, this commitment to something that is most definitely a 180-degree shift for him is strangely fascinating. But something so experimental may not serve Watts well at all, especially with so many characters potentially competing for screen time.

The film’s line-up generally feels rather nondescript except for Watts’ presence too, with Grillo being a better character actor than leading man. Once Upon a Time in Staten Island just feels inadequate for someone of Watts’s caliber.

Fortunately, the actress has another feature in the works that could be a better fit. Watts will once again team up with director Claire McCarthy, with whom she worked on the unconventional new “Hamlet” adaptation of Ophelia. A few weeks ago, Variety reported that Watts will headline McCarthy’s next feature, Burning Season, opposite Sophia Lillis (IT).

The film will be based on Laura Van Den Berg’s short story “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us” and center on a complicated mother-daughter relationship. Watts will play brilliant primatologist June Engle, who travels to Madagascar to find an endangered species. Her teenage daughter (Lillis) begrudgingly tags along on the trip and together with a local researcher, the Engles have to navigate their strained relationship, with June needing to find a balance between work and family.

In the hands of a different filmmaker, Burning Season could very well be a generic drama set in an “exotic” location where westerners go to find themselves or whatever. But having worked together with McCarthy to create a distinctive feminist take on “Hamlet,” Watts has established a promising relationship with a director with a remarkable vision. Hopefully, McCarthy will bring some of that freshness to Burning Season too. Plus, I’m betting the combination of Watts and Lillis will be an electric one, given their individual strengths at commanding the screen.

Watts’s filmography going forward still sounds hit or miss, even though I very much want to be pumped for anything she’s in. Burning Season may have a better chance of working out than Once Upon a Time in Staten Island in that it definitely won’t waste Watts’s talent, so that’s the film I’m more keen on seeing.

Watts is also set to feature in Julius Onah’s LuceAlistair Banks Griffin’s The Wolf Hour and Joe Carnahan’s Boss Level (which also stars Grillo). These are a lot of movies on paper, but will they be worth it? Let’s be real, nobody should cast Watts in anything unless they’re willing to make her a shining star. She is a powerhouse performer and deserves an explosive comeback.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)