Miscast Roles: The Case For Mark Ruffalo in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
You know this movie, and chances are that you loved this movie -- except for that one role that almost ruined it all. Miscast Roles is where Movieline and its readers swap out those roles to make it right.
One of last year’s surprise critical and commercial darlings, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, wowed audiences, stoked many an awards-season debate and revitalized an important science fiction franchise — all while still managing to appeal to moviegoers unfamiliar with the original 1968 film (or that film's 1963 source novel). As chief chimp Caesar, Andy Serkis’s performative collaboration with the motion capture geniuses from WETA was a great spectacle, presenting viewers with a gorgeously rendered CGI-animated character.
Yet one consistent flaw in Rise left me scratching my head: James Franco’s weirdly aloof performance as scientist Will Rodman. The film presents Rodman as an Alzheimer’s disease researcher who claims to have found a cure that necessitates extensive animal testing and, subsequently, brings about a race of intelligent, self-aware chimpanzees, as well as the titular “rise” of the primate-centered culture in which the rest of the series is based. Imagining Franco as a brilliant researcher even in the best of performances would be, let’s face it, a bit of stretch. But add the fact that this character is motivated by a desire to cure his own father of the debilitating effects of the disease in question — not to mention Rodman's somewhat unhealthy attachment to the first subject of his animal tests — and you’ve got a complex emotional palette that seemed to flat-out confuse Franco.
A much better choice for this role would have been the expressive Mark Ruffalo, an actor capable of communicating exactly what was needed of the Rodman character in this story. This is not to say that Franco is a bad actor, far from it. His talents are just misplaced here: Franco is best at lengthening the emotional distance between character and audience, arresting viewers’ attention through enigma and idiosyncrasy, rather than connecting through direct emotional appeal. He rarely lets the viewer into his head space, and this role really needed someone with whom the audience could immediately connect. Ruffalo, meanwhile, has acted powerfully in two films in particular — You Can Count on Me and Shutter Island — that required exactly the two traits most vital to the Rodman character: a palpable sense of sympathy and an ability to play a straight-man to a more eye-catching lead.
Rodman’s psychology, hovering between helplessness and an ambitious determination to set things right, was meant to parallel the emotional instability of his primate pal Caesar, as the latter scales from animal behavior up the rungs of human cognitive development. Franco consistently hit the wrong notes in his interaction with Serkis’s Caesar, and often left John Lithgow, who played the dementia-stricken father, adrift in scenery chewing overtures. The scenes between father and son didn’t work like they could’ve, and the potential to cast the conflicting motivations vying for Rodman’s attention in terms of Caesar’s own dual nature went unrealized.
In Ruffalo’s breakthrough role in You Can Count On Me, he showed huge emotional range as the wayward brother to Laura Linney’s maternally protective big sister character. You Can Count On Me highlights a young man’s floundering crisis of identity, as played out within a family drama. [Clip NSFW]
The film is one long assurance by Ruffalo’s character that, wherever he might wander in the greater world, the bonds of family holding him and his sister together still remain. Sound familiar? Rise of the Planet of the Apes features a strikingly similar theme, though its identity crisis and negotiation of familial loyalty covers an inter-species bond. In You Can Count On Me, Ruffalo plays the “Caesar role” to Linney’s big sister; he is the one breaking out into new territory of self-determination, while it’s Linney who plays the concerned, yet ultimately quiescent guardian. But Ruffalo reverses that relationship in his mentorship of Linney’s young son, played by Kieran Culkin, and there he shows some very strong Rodman-type characteristics.
Meanwhile, Ruffalo’s pensive second fiddle to Leonardo DiCaprio’s go-for-broke investigator in Shutter Island also fulfills the required qualifications for stepping into the Rodman part. Ruffalo stays in the background of the drama for most of Shutter Island, allowing DiCaprio to serve as a fixed center to the film’s horrifically shifting sense of reality. The fact that the audience isn’t supposed to be looking too closely at Ruffalo ends up being important, given plot developments. Yet when all is revealed, and Ruffalo is finally able to communicate what his watchful, subdued presence in the film actually entails, he shines.
Watch Ruffalo’s eyes in the final scene of Shutter Island in the clip below, and imagine how applying that level of character layering to Will Rodman in Rise of the Planet of the Apes would have benefited the whole production.