First, let's give Renee Zellweger credit where it is due. She's turned in some great comedic performances in the Bridget Jones movies-- even when the movies were no good--and actually made us believe it when Tom Cruise told her that she completed him in Jerry Maguire. But her roles this decade have mostly been set in the past, and whether the movie took place in the Old West or the screwball 1930s, Zellweger has been the worst part of it. Filmmakers, take note: Renee Zellweger will ruin your period piece, and only you can prevent this from happening.
Ed Harris is the latest to fall victim to her curse, completely miscasting her as a seductress of the Wild West in Appaloosa. But George Clooney made the exact same mistake six months ago, casting Zellweger in Leatherheads as a sassy 30s spitfire, like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday? George Clooney made a lot of mistakes with his period football comedy-- among them telling a really, really boring story-- but Zellweger? Really? Didn't he see Down With Love, the 60s sex farce in which she and Ewan McGregor competed to see which of them could be the most awkward?
Really, Harris and Clooney both have no excuse. Down With Love was only the beginning of Zellweger taking roles in period movies that no one saw. She started with Chicago, which was actually a good role for her and maybe should have earned her an Oscar. But after the forgettable Down With Love she actually win an Oscar for Cold Mountain, an Oscar baity movie that no one actually wanted to see, or like. And for everyone who thought Zellweger was great as the coarse servant type, there were plenty of others who thought she went way over the top.
Never afraid to do too much of a good thing, Zellweger followed up Cold Mountain with two more period pieces, each less popular than the one before it-- Cinderella Man, as Russell Crowe's wife, and Miss Potter, as the children's author Beatrix Potter. Pundits fell all over themselves when both of these films were released, explaining why they failed, but did it ever occur to them that Zellweger + the past = just plain annoying?
I don't think it's mean girl snark to suggest that Zellweger has done something unnatural to her face in the intervening years between Empire Records and Appaloosa. Her frozen forehead and shiny cheeks may be a part of of why she sticks out so much in the period pieces, like a plastic doll of this decade rather than an actual person of the time. But mostly I think you can just see her strain, imitating other actresses she's seen pull off similar roles and figuring, "Hey, I've got an Oscar; how hard can this be?
Appaloosa is plenty good even with Zellweger in it, and Leatherheads probably would have been bad no matter who they cast in the role. But when there are so few good roles for women in movies, why in God's name are so many of them going to Zellweger? Think of how good Mary Louise Parker was in the four minutes of screen time she had in The Assassination of Jesse James; it's almost a crime she wasn't offered Zellweger's role in Appaloosa after that.
Renee: Hop out of your time machine. Stay put, relax your face, stop trying to hard, and find a role that might make us like you again. And directors, leave the girl alone. We've seen her in 60's suitdresses, corsets, cloche hats and flapper dresses-- let her put on a pair of jeans and maybe, just maybe, get back to the actress she was when we didn't automatically dread her presence.