Stars must shine brighter than the material that surrounds them. Amy Adams certainly does that in Leap Year, which opens wide today. (See the Cinematical review by Eric D. Snider.) The creaky romantic comedy is not worthy of her talents, but you'd never know that from watching Adams in the movie. She's game for just about anything, whether it's stepping in cow flop, getting covered in mud, chasing a runaway car down a hill, or delivering lines that weren't funny when they were first trotted out in vaudeville 80 years ago.
It's a measure of Adams' abilities that you may be tempted to root for her sweet, clueless character anyway. Resistance is not futile; the film's charms are, sadly, very limited, and witnessing a supposedly modern adult woman act like a naive girl-child is quite frustrating. Still, Adams graces two quiet interludes with soul and warmth, and avoids becoming fussy and mannered in an attempt to oversell the comedy -- a trap that the great Meryl Streep fell into recently with It's Complicated.
Adams and Streep have appeared together in two films, so it's instructive to compare the two at similar stages of their respective careers. Streep began her screen career at the age of 28 with a supporting role in Julia in 1977. Over the next decade, she filled her resume with a range of high-powered dramatics and sorrowful tragedy. She became a fixture at the Academy Awards, earning two Oscars and five other nominations during that ten-year period. She rose quickly into the ranks of dramatic leading ladies, but it seems that it was difficult at the time for audiences to accept her as anything other than some variation of a cool, distant customer.
Adams has just completed her first decade on screen and is not so fixed in the public mind. After debuting with a small role at the age of 25 in Drop Dead Gorgeous in 1999, she floated through a variety of TV shows (including the ill-fated Manchester Prep, which became Cruel Intentions 2, and The West Wing, which is where I first noticed her as an Indiana farm girl) and independent movies before hitting the studio big time as a sweet Southern nurse in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. Five years later she graduated to her first starring role in Enchanted, though she continues to make a mark in supporting roles (Charlie Wilson's War). Her most notable characters have traded on her ability to communicate good-hearted innocence without choking on self-important irony.
In Doubt, Adams was the righteous innocent, not quite knowing her own mind, and perhaps subject to persuasion by stronger personalities. Streep was the freight train, mighty and determined to set things straight. Streep might have blown a lesser actress of the screen, but Adams dug in her heels and made an impression.
Though they don't act together in Julie & Julia, their characters interact delightfully. Once again (and deservedly so), Streep has the showier, meatier role, edging toward camp but pulling back from the edge, and earning laughter and sympathy. Adams must play a disconsolate woman who, again, is initially subject to stronger personalities (her husband and Julia Child).
Streep is the dominant performer; her scenes with Stanley Tucci easily provide more romance than Adams and her partner, Chris Messina, can generate with considerable effort. Adams can't quite make us feel entirely sympathetic, but she makes Julie reasonable, which is more than expected in view of the material.
With Adams, you rarely feel that she's playing a part; instead, she seems to be jumping into the bodies of family members, not quite playing herself but someone close to her. She may give off an aura of positive vibes, but wearing her heart on her sleeve means she's also quite vulnerable, with little margin for miscalculation.
She's demonstrated that in Enchanted (her second Academy Award nomination), Junebug (her first Academy Award nomination), Catch Me If You Can, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the revealing Psycho Beach Party, and, especially, Sunshine Cleaning, which is probably a major reason why Leap Year is so disappointing.
As my Cinematical colleague Eric D. Snider observed in his review: "The fact that Adams, through the sheer force of her feisty screen presence, almost makes this debacle tolerable is a testament to her talent. More resonant, however, is the disappointing realization that she agreed to make such an unfunny, dunderheaded comedy in the first place."
Here's hoping that Adams makes better choices in the future so that, without reservation, we can sit back and watch her really shine.