Here’s the thing about premiering your directorial debut at the Cannes Film Festival: whatever happens there, it’s going to happen loudly. Such was the case Tuesday, when leading man and Tumblr fave Ryan Gosling unveiled Lost River to a chorus of boos from attendees and hisses from fleeing critics. Variety’s Scott Foundas dubbed it “a first-rate folie de grandeur,” while the London Telegraph’s Tim Robey called it “a film-maudit crapocalypse.” Grantland’s Wesley Morris was even harsher: “If a $200 haircut and $900 shades were given lots of money to defecate on Detroit, the result would be Ryan Gosling’s directing debut.” Warner Brothers, which bankrolled the picture, is reportedly trying to offload it to a smaller distributor. With this high-profile folly following a series of commercial disappointments, could this be the end of Gosling’s pop culture reign? And if it is — does he actually care?
Considerable aesthetic qualities aside, Gosling has always been a bit of a mismatch for the role of conventional Hollywood leading man. Coming out of a famous Mickey Mouse Club bumper crop that also yielded Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Keri Russell, Gosling seemed determined to make his way in offbeat, small pictures; his breakthrough film was the notorious The Believer, the story of a Jewish neo-Nazi skinhead that was so incendiary, it was unable to find American distribution after a successful Sundance premiere (it debuted instead on Showtime).
But in 2004, he co-starred in The Notebook, about as broad a play for mainstream success as one can imagine (about the only other explanation for his appearance in the film is some kind of Cassavetes idolatry; it was directed by John’s son Nick, and co-stars Gena Rowlands). It was a wide-release romantic weepie, adapted from a novel by Nicholas Sparks, and over a successful theatrical run and phenomenal home-media afterlife, it imposed on Ryan Gosling precisely the identity he’d seemed so intent on dodging: a Teen Beat-style heartthrob.
In the years that followed, he did his best to shake the image, taking on tiny pictures like the brilliant Half Nelson and the oddball Lars and the Real Girl, disappearing into unflattering chubby-and-balding looks for All Good Things and Blue Valentine, vanishing from movies altogether for three years, between 2007 and 2010. But Gosling’s matinee-idol looks, wryly funny interviews, fascinating off-screen heroics, and meme-friendly presence made Ryan Gosling, Movie Star seem like an inevitability.
But the fascinating footnote to that image is this: he doesn’t make many hits. He’s never had a movie cross the $100 million mark (aside from 2000’s Remember the Titans, where he does less speaking than dancing); The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid, Love, with grosses in the $80 million range, are his biggest successes as a leading player. But recent efforts like The Ides of March and Gangster Squad were seen as disappointments, and Drive’s $35 million take didn’t come close to approaching the hype and critical love that film amassed before its opening.
And no wonder — it’s basically an experimental film, a throwback to ‘80s Michael Mann sifted with generous helpings of Antonioni-style expressionism and copious gore. Gosling and Drive director Nicholas Winding Refn re-teamed for follow-up film, Only God Forgives, and though a few lonely souls admired its bizarro approach, most critics dubbed it a pretentious failure, while its theatrical run didn’t even cross the $1 million mark. That was Gosling’s last release.
The reports of Lost River’s unfortunate Cannes debut reminded this Gosling admirer of something, and at first I thought it was Only God Forgives’ similarly scathing premiere there last year. And then it crystalized — no, it was the 1997 Cannes Film Festival, where Johnny Depp premiered his directorial debut, The Brave. It did not go well. “A turgid and unbelievable neo-western,” pronounced Variety, while Screen International said Depp’s picture “crawls across the screen for two hours like a snail.” The film was never even released in the US.
Gosling’s path thus far has been remarkably similar to Depp’s: an unreasonably good-looking young actor achieves early success with an audience-friendly project (in Depp’s case, 21 Jump Street), spends years trying to subvert his image with oddball roles in small films, and ends up at Cannes, directing a critically drubbed misfire. In the years that followed The Brave’s unkind reception, Depp would continue to cast about, somewhat aimlessly, before finding unexpected mainstream success in the Pirates of the Caribbean films; their commercial triumph ultimately tamed the risk-taking actor, who cultivated a kind of Generic Weirdo brand that would ultimately prove just as confining as the conventional leading man label he’d taken such pains to avoid.
Will Gosling follow a similar path? Here’s hoping not. Such calculations are often subconscious, but it seems entirely possible that such blatant raspberries as Only God Forgives and Lonely River are, among other things, a message from the actor-turned-director: you can put me on all the magazine covers you want, but this is the weird shit I want to spend my time and energy on. So deal with it. A continuing stream of puzzling projects may mean Gosling’s once-considerable heat will continue to cool, but if so, he doesn’t seem all that concerned. It may even be his endgame.