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Rob Edelman: Adam In The Driver’s Seat

Occasionally but not always, actors who earn acclaim on television series transition to film and become film stars. James Garner, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, and Bruce Willis are four that come to mind. Even though they earned their initial fame on the small screen, they proved themselves movie star material in the tradition of such pre-TV film legends as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, and so many others. Women will be attracted to a James Garner, a Tom Hanks, a George Clooney, or a Bruce Willis, while men will want to emulate them.

So how does one explain the celluloid presence and hot-commodity status of Adam Driver? Driver is a product of television. He’s played Lena Dunham’s love interest on GIRLS, the HBO series, and these days he increasingly is showing up on the big screen. He started out playing small parts in a pair of biopics: Clint Eastwood’s J. EDGAR and Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN. He won supporting roles in the Coen brothers’ INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and Noah Baumbach’s FRANCES HA. And now he is moving on up in movie land. Later this year, he will be seen in STAR WARS: EPISODE VII-- THE FORCE AWAKENS. Then he will be appearing in SILENCE, directed by Martin Scorsese.

Driver presently is the second male lead in WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, also directed by Noah Baumbach. He offers a nuanced performance playing a complex character: Jamie, a self-centered wannabe documentary filmmaker, a twenty-something who exudes charm but also will do anything to embrace success, and that includes telling tall stories and mercilessly manipulating others. Jamie thinks everything should be his not for the asking but for the taking. He deserves whatever accolades he receives just because he wants them. And he is contrasted to Josh, played by Ben Stiller: a forty-something filmmaker who never will earn accolades. Professionally-speaking, Josh is, well, inept, but personally-speaking, he has what Jamie does not. And that is integrity.

But back to Adam Driver. Jamie is a challenging role, to be sure, and Driver makes the character wholly believable. However, Adam Driver clearly is no James Garner, no Tom Hanks, no George Clooney, no Bruce Willis. He does not exude “traditional” movie-star quality. Some might describe him as average-looking. He might be your next-door neighbor or the guy who works beside you in an office or the guy who sits next to you in a classroom. At the same time, he also exudes a hipster’s brashness. Perhaps he might be the barista in your favorite coffee shop or the waiter in the newest, hippest restaurant in town.

So why does Adam Driver earn big-screen stardom? How does he come to play opposite Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, and Amanda Seyfried in WHILE WE’RE YOUNG? The answer, I think, has to do with his uniqueness. Also, given his looks and demeanor, one might assume that he started out appearing in mumblecore features. At its core, mumblecore is an independent cinema subgenre: a term which describes a range of films featuring ultra-low budgets and naturalistic dialogue. And one might automatically link Driver to such mumblecore personalities as Andrew Bujalski, Greta Gerwig, Joe Swanberg, and Mark and Jay Duplass.

However, while these directors and actors were making such mumblecore features as FUNNY HA HA, THE PUFFY CHAIR, HANNAH TAKES THE STAIRS, and BAGHEAD, Adam Driver was serving his country as a U.S. Marine. He enlisted in the corps after 9/11. These days, it is rare to come across a young movie star-on-the-rise who also is a veteran. And so Adam Driver is, well, different. There is a uniqueness to him that is, in a word, refreshing.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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