Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Jonah Hill is the most unlikely movie star. He isn’t particularly “handsome” like those who came before him, such as Rudolph Valentino, Cary Grant, or even George Clooney. Hollywood producers don’t develop movies for him, and he is rarely given the leading role. In another time, Hill might have been a consistently reliable character actor like Harry Dean Stanton whose presence elevates certain films but whose name is largely unrecognized by the general moviegoing audience. Today, however, Hill is a household name, and his appearance in more films signifies a change in both industry and audience practices.
Unlike most character actors who express their versatility in diverse supporting roles, Hill presents a star persona that is specific to his skills as a performer. In his scene-stealing cameo in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, for example, Hill creates humor out of an awkward encounter. Hill’s deadpan delivery forces the audience to laugh at his character’s cringeworthy interactions. The character is painful to watch, and the audience is embarrassed for him, but Hill’s ability to own the absurdity of the situation turns the scene into comedy gold.
The same can be said about Hill’s supporting turn in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Hill plays a different character in the film and is given more screen time, but he similarly finds humor in awkwardness. He approaches the scene as a serious actor would, but the combination of his intention (to promote his music) and the situation (intruding upon an intimate conversation between two characters) creates an embarrassing moment that is so absurd the audience can’t help but laugh.
Hill would push this persona to the extreme in Cyrus, a hilarious comedy in which he plays a young man who still lives with his mother Molly (Marisa Tomei). John C. Reilly‘s character begins dating Molly and must deal with Hill’s abnormalities. In the scene below, Hill threatens Reilly to back off, and as usual, he turns an awkward situation into comedy. Hill plays the scene intensely as if it were a drama, but the absurd premise of the film and Hill’s association with it triggers the audience to laugh.
Hill would continue to develop and expand this persona in other films, including his Oscar nominated turns in both Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street. In the former, Hill is as subdued as he’s ever been, but there’s always an element of humor in even the simplest line readings. By contrast, his work in the latter is over-the-top, and although he shows a side of himself moviegoers have never seen, he still manages to sneak in his awkward screen persona. Consider, for instance, the scene below in which Hill explains to Leonardo DiCaprio‘s character his abnormal relationship with his cousin. The combination of Hill’s physical appearance (those teeth!) and his earnest delivery once again force the audience to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
This is not to say that Hill lacks talent, because I personally think that he’s one of cinema’s most exciting performers. However, with each film appearance, Hill cultivates a unique star persona that is unlike anything we’ve seen before. He lacks the traditional handsomeness of other male movie stars and he isn’t expected or required to play the leading role. Yet his signature is always stamped on each film he’s in, and all of his performances adhere to his persona while simultaneously expanding it. Like some of Hill’s more famous co-stars such as Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, Hill has become a beloved household name. Unlike them, Hill is carving a new path for movie stars of a different kind, and it will be exciting to see where he goes next.