When The Social Network came out in 2010, it seemed like it could herald a nice acting career for Justin Timberlake. It wasn’t Timberlake’s first part, but it was probably his most significant to date—a scene-stealing supporting role in an Oscar-caliber movie that fans largely adored.
The Social Network was by no means the Justin Timberlake show, but it did put fans on notice that the former NSYNC frontman (if boy bands have such a thing) and pop/R&B star could be making a more serious transition into acting. Now, more than halfway through the decade, and acting alongside Kate Winslet in an untitled Woody Allen project aiming for a 2017 release, it seems like a good time to look back on what the actor has done with his increasingly prolific film career. We’ll take it film-by-film.
In his first film after The Social Network, Timberlake played Scott Delacorte, a sort of straight-laced but not un-fun high school teacher. He was a foil to Cameron Diaz’s titular “bad teacher,” and to put it mildly it wasn’t a very serious role. Timberlake seemed to phone it in a little bit, using his natural charms and boyish smirk to get by, but that’s really all this part called for. It was easy to imagine that he and Diaz, both of whom rose to stardom in the ’90s and have been around a while despite their youth, were just enjoying hanging out on the set. It was fun enough, but not quite the ambitious follow-up to The Social Network that some probably wanted.
This film had the unfortunate problem of coming out alongside a direct competitor, No Strings Attached, starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. The two movies were so closely tied that earlier this year, five years after their release, The Ringer saw fit to put out a comparison between the two, in which the writer effectively dubbed. No Strings Attached the champion. This writer actually disagrees.
Both movies have their charms, but Timberlake and co-star Mila Kunis won the chemistry battle, and frankly, this probably should have put Timberlake on the map a little bit more than it did. It’s by no means an acting clinic, but Timberlake is surprisingly funny and every bit as charismatic as the likes of Ryan Reynolds or Ryan Gosling, who established their names with similarly toned romantic comedies.
This movie seemed like a pretty cool concept, but unfortunately devolved into a beating-a-dead-horse metaphor about time as currency. There wasn’t much that Timberlake could do with it, but it’s also not as if he showed up as the lone bright spot in a bad project—this was just all around bad.
This was a decent film for baseball fans and people who enjoy character-driven drama, but it was overshadowed by one problem: as one review put it, Clint Eastwood merely adopted the cantankerous old man mode he’s been skating by with for a decade. It’s just not that interesting anymore and, unfortunately, it overshadowed the potential of the movie, as well as a passable, if not particularly noteworthy Timberlake performance.
What’s interesting is that even with a filmography that consists of a lot of fun and fine roles but nothing spectacular, Timberlake still seems to find his way in with serious people and projects. He worked with Eastwood, he’s got the Woody Allen film coming up, and Inside Llewyn Davis was a critical heavyweight that narrowly missed Oscar consideration. This was probably Timberlake’s best role to date, and not just because of the caliber of the movie. Working alongside the likes of Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver seemed to elevate him, and for arguably the first time since The Social Network he was more than some variation of “likable charmer.”
Timberlake’s most recent major film unfortunately might have been the biggest missed opportunity of the bunch. Runner Runner sought to provide a modern twist on a gambling movie, which addressed the business and intrigue of online casinos. In the real world, these casinos have become sophisticated enough to bring about drama the same way Vegas establishments once did. In the best cases, online poker and casino games are now offered with live human dealers and real competitors playing in real time.
Real money is involved, and there are all kinds of high stakes tournaments and games at hand. But instead of crafting a drama surrounding players in this kind of environment, Runner Runner allowed itself to become a messy, generic crime flick that was utterly forgettable. Timberlake can’t be faulted for the script or direction that doomed this project, but it still wasn’t great for him to have his name on this one.
It’s been an up and down run overall, and it will be interesting to see what Timberlake has in store moving forward.