It's hard to figure out what exactly conspires to make an actor underrated, though in Sam Rockwell's case he might as well be the poster-child for undervalued thespians. Even in "The Way, Way Back," his latest movie, a touching indie about an introverted teen navigating the quiet indignities of adolescence while his mom gets drunk with her jerk of a boyfriend, Rockwell once again takes a backseat.
Instead, his strong supporting performance as Owen, the water park manager who's so relentlessly charming he helps young Duncan come out of his shell, gets overshadowed in Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's directorial debut after their screenwriting Oscar for "The Descendants." Or maybe it's the general shock of watching Steve Carell play a jerk, and do it so well.
Like most coming-of-age films, "The Way, Way Back" is about the underdog making good, and with his reputation for scene-stealing, well-documented dance moves and easy charisma, Rockwell's due for proper recognition eventually. It'll help if "The Way, Way Back" becomes the next breakout indie hit, like 2013's "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Juno." Until then, though, here's an unscientific look back at five movies that should've already made Rockwell a household name.
Justin Hammer, "Iron Man 2":
Playing the bad guy in a major summer blockbuster -- especially one as heavily-anticipated as "Iron Man 2" -- is usually enough to take an underrated actor to the next level. Only Rockwell's already done that once before, in "Charlie's Angels." And it didn't exactly translate into movie stardom then either. Still, having Rockwell play a less-beloved, darker version of Tony Stark was an inspired bit of casting. Because with his proven ability to play a narcissistic-yet-charming oddball, Rockwell isn't just Iron Man in an alternate universe somewhere, he's Robert Downey, Jr.
Victor Mancini, "Choke":
OK, so maybe it's not much of a surprise that playing an unrepentant sex-addicted con man in "Choke" didn't launch Rockwell to the A-list. Victor isn't your typical loveable, mainstream rom-com leading man. But after the huge success of Chuck Palahniuk's "Fight Club," you'd have figured his next big-screen adaption would've gotten a little more buzz. Especially thanks to Rockwell's Mancini, who played the film's anti-hero with almost as much misguided charm as Brad Pitt's iconic Tyler Durden. Director Clark Gregg went on to mainstream recognition with a recurring role as fan favorite Agent Phil Coulson for Marvel (and soon, his own TV show). Rockwell, meanwhile, went back to another solid but unsung supporting role in "Frost/Nixon."
Billy Bickle, "Seven Psychopaths":
Even for an accomplished scene-stealer like Rockwell, it's no easy task stealing a movie from Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson and Christopher Walken (especially Christopher Walken). But as Billy, a dog-napping sociopath in the meta black comedy, Rockwell proved he could become king of the unhinged, even in an all-star cast filled with Hollywood's best. And while writer/director Martin McDonagh's follow-up to the cult classic "In Bruges" had its problems, Rockwell wasn't one of them. When you can out-crazy Tom Waits holding a pet rabbit, people should take notice.
Chuck Barris, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind":
Based on the bizarre memoirs of game show creator and self-proclaimed CIA operative Chuck Barris, with a script by Charlie Kaufman, and the directorial debut of George Clooney (who also co-starred), "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" looked like a sure thing for Rockwell. He romances Drew Barrymore (sort of), plays a self-destructive TV producer/secret agent, and even grows a mean Howard Hughes beard. And yet, Rockwell didn't even become the biggest star to portray Barris in his own movie: that award goes to Michael Cera, who shows up briefly in "Confessions" as young Chuck, ages 8 and 11.
Sam Bell, "Moon":
The biggest head-scratcher is "Moon," which made all of $5 million at the box office despite being a critical darling and 2009's best sci-fi film (and no, I'm not forgetting "Avatar"). As Sam Bell, tasked with the solo mission of manning mining operations on the dark side of the moon, Rockwell carries the movie all on his own, unless you count acting opposite GERTY, the series of emoticons later voiced by Kevin Spacey. This isn't a surprise, since Hollywood's littered with small indies that didn't get the recognition they deserve. And even though "Moon" didn't need win Rockwell any hardware, a commanding performance this good should've officially vaulted him into the next tier.
He gets another chance with "The Way, Way Back." But even if that doesn't work either, and Rockwell stays perpetually underrated, well, to paraphrase Owen, that's about us; it clearly has nothing to do with him anymore.
"The Way, Way Back" opens in select theaters on July 5.