When it was first announced that Vince Vaughn would be among the cast for season two of HBO’s True Detective, a lot of people had the same reaction: “Seriously, the motorboatin’ guy?” What those people forget is that Vaughn was once primarily known as a dramatic actor. Remember his work in movies like The Cell, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho? Well actually, you could argue that his performance as Norman Bates was Vaughn’s unintentional transition into comedy.
Vaughn’s true breakout comedy role was in Swingers, however, where he made the words, “Vegas baby,” his own. Over time, Vaughn would completely rebrand himself as a comedic actor. He had a scene-stealing supporting role in Old School, gave a likable straight man performance in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, and made a few fun cameos in movies like Anchorman and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. This all built up to the biggest comedy hit of Vaughn’s career, Wedding Crashers. As Jeremy Grey, Vaughn killed every one-liner he spouted and played off Owen Wilson’s John Beckwith to perfection. Vaughn was born to play this role and it’s still one of the most memorable comedic performances of the past decade.
After peaking with that hit, though, Vaughn started to take a nosedive. The Break-Up, Four Christmases, Couples Retreat, and his other subsequent comedies were all duds with critics. Since Vaughn accumulated so much goodwill with his earlier films, of course audiences kept paying to see his newer work regardless. After awhile, however, even audiences started to catch on to Vaughn’s decline in quality. In 2013, he starred in multiple duds with The Internship and Delivery Man. Earlier this year, his career hit a new low with Unfinished Business, which barely made over ten million dollars at the box office.
How did Vaughn go from being on top of the world to headlining one bomb after another? For starters, Vaughn can be a really funny guy, but he’s not a dominating comedic force like Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, or Melissa McCarthy. Even when those comedians are given poor material to work with, they’ll still completely take charge of their roles and do everything in their power to give a funny performance. Vaughn on the other hand, will essentially go on autopilot and deliver his usual energetic, yet sardonic, routine, which is only humorous when he’s actually given funny things to say.
It’s also possible that Hollywood jumped the gun by marketing Vaughn as a leading man. His most memorable roles have all either been as a minor side character, the best friend, or the co-lead at most. When Vaughn is expected to be the soul source of comedy, though, his material can get old really quickly. He needs proper support and a strong script, which all of his most recent comedies have lacked.
Vaughn is essentially suffering from the same dilemma that plagued the late Leslie Nielsen, who also was once better known as a dramatic actor. That all changed with Nielsen’s career-defining roles in Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies. Instead of keeping his audience on their toes, however, Nielsen settled for just doing the same old thing over and over again. In his final years, he only signed on to do shoddy spoofs like Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Spy Hard, and Scary Movie 4.
To Vince Vaughn’s credit, he at least seems to be trying harder to rejuvenate his career than Nielsen. True Detective is the perfect venue for Vaughn to get his career back on track. Remember when Matthew McConaughey was only starring in sucky romantic comedies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Failure to Launch, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past? He’s completely reinvented himself with the McConaissance and True Detective played a huge part in that.
While Vaughn’s performance in True Detective certainly isn’t on the same level as McConaughey’s, he has demonstrated thus far that he can still deliver a good dramatic performance without relying on his typical schtick. It’d be interesting to see Vaughn continue to do supporting work in dramas as well as supporting work in comedies. Going back to being a supporting player might sound like a step backwards for Vaughn, but it’s actually the best way for him to keep moving forward. To remain relevant in this industry, actors must be able to recognize their strengths, their weaknesses, and their limitations. Vaughn has bitten off more than he can chew in the past and consequentially fallen off the horse, but he might be able to get back on by the end of True Detective. Of course if this season takes a turn for the worst, Owen Wilson could always join Vaughn and Rachel McAdams for a Wedding Crashers reunion.