Sandra Bullock's a Movie Star, Justin Timberlake Isn't—and It's OK to Discuss This

October 8, 2013

The big winner at the box office this weekend was Gravity, racking up almost $56 million in ticket sales. It is the latest in a string of huge successes for Bullock. Earlier this year, her R-rated buddy cop comedy The Heat grossed almost $160 million. 2009's The Blind Side, for which she won an Oscar, grossed almost $256 million. The Proposal, also from 2009, racked up almost $164 million in sales. Even the woeful All About Steve—for which she won a pair of Razzies* and is generally considered to be a huge bomb—grossed more than $40 million worldwide on a $15 million production budget.

Sandra Bullock can open all sorts of movies—comedies, dramas, sci-fi flicks—and is beloved by men and women alike. As John Podhoretz noted,

Sandra Bullock is a huge star. She's delightful (see the footnote below) and fun and pretty, but not so pretty as to alienate female audiences. She's the most bankable woman in Hollywood, easily. And she's more bankable than pretty much any man.

Justin Timberlake, meanwhile, is the opposite of Sandra Bullock, at least when it comes to American audiences.** His latest film, Runner Runner, tanked at the box office, opening to just $7.7 million. The sci-fi actioner In Time did just $37 million and opened with a paltry $12 million take, good for third place that week. His most successful films have all come as a supporting actor—Bad TeacherYogi Bear, and The Social Network all grossed right around $100 million—though it's questionable how much of that can really be attributed to Timberlake.

The problem, as Pajiba's Courtney Enlow notes, is that Timberlake, as a concept, doesn't work outside of a very specific milieu:

With the exception of three- to five-minute SNL sketches, Justin Timberlake has all the acting skill of Sofia Coppola if she was layered in coat after coat of the freshness of a Massengil kind of day. His charm fades faster than JC Chasez’s solo career. His offensively bad acting jumps on your skull like it’s Jessica Biel on her wedding day.

You and I may enjoy Justin Timberlake. And that’s OK. I enjoy lots of things. I like filing my nails. But if I had to file my nails for 90 minutes or more, I’d be left with a lot of pain and bloody finger stumps. And it might be preferable to watching Justin Timberlake try to act.

Contra Enlow, I get why Hollywood keeps trying to make Timberlake "happen" (see note number two). But it's not sticking, at least here at home. Dude's not a movie star. He'll just have to settle for being a huge pop star and the object of adoration of women. Tough life.

According to Drew Magary, everything above was stupid and pointless. Writes Magary:

Unlike sports, movies and television shows are not real. When you see RGIII go down with a horrific knee injury in the playoffs, it makes sense to talk endlessly about what that injury means for his career, his team's future, and his relationship with his coaches. Those are real events that have real consequences for real people, and speculating on that is fun.

By contrast, "Can Aaron Paul Be A Movie Star?" is nothing. It's a strained attempt at taking a piece of fictional television and treating it as some kind of final sporting result. ("BREAKING BAD WON! BUT NOW AARON PAUL HAS TO FIND A NEW TEAM!") It doesn't work, and it places an emphasis on the bullshit marketplace analysis of a show over the show itself. It's expanding the water cooler conversation to a two-hour postgame show with eight moron analysts babbling on about absolutely nothing. And while that conversation is fun—I guess?—it's not essential. It doesn't mean anything. The Breaking Bad finale is a complete experience on its own. It doesn't need a fucking HOT TAKE to give it full closure. And rating points and box office returns are not stats the same way that home runs are stats, no matter how hard you try to make it so. There's a reason the Hollywood Stock Exchange never took off.

This coming from a guy who assigns arbitrary ratings about the "quality" of football games over the weekend. "Oh, Broncos at Cowboys gets 'Four Throwgasms' while Texans at Niners gets 'Five'? Nice take. THAT IS NOT STRAINED ANALYSIS AT ALL AND SUPER SCIENCE-Y, BRO. "***

I don't really see how discussing whether or not Sandra Bullock is a movie star is any more pathetic than discussing whether or not Adrian Peterson should be MVP. Or whether or not Matt Schaub is in a space mentally where he can throw the football. Or whether or not Andy Reid is a genius or just kind of lucky. These are all super-arbitrary discussions. There's literally no difference between discussing one and discussing the other. Plus, the business of Hollywood is fascinating. It really is. Read The Hollywood Economist if you doubt that.

Sports and Hollywood are both intriguing because they're operating in a semi-rational manner.**** Totally irrational markets are frustrating and stupid; perfectly rational markets are boring and lame. But trying to guess what will open at the box office or who will run for the most yards based on imperfect knowledge and the realization that something terrible could happen at any time? That's a fun thing to talk about.

So quit being such a Buzz Killington, Magary. Geez.

*Exhibit A in my case for Sandra Bullock: Awesome Person would be her reaction to winning the Razzie for All About Steve. As you can watch, she was a.) totally in on the joke, and b.) totally comfortable shaming the nerds at the Razzies for being a bunch of asinine jackalopes. She's right: None of them saw that movie. They were just voting for her because they thought "Hey, this is the person who the conventional wisdom said had the worst performance this year." She's amazing. I heart her.

**Interestingly, he has done okay overseas. In Time grossed just $37.5 million domestically but did $136.4 million of business overseas. Similarly, Friends with Benefits did almost $56 million at home and almost $94 million worldwide. Apparently the overseas audiences love that one-time boy bander. 

***All caps are fun!

****This is something Jonathan V. Last and I were discussing over email; I want to make sure I give him proper credit.