The Marvel Cinematic Universe has turned a whole lot of beloved actors into superheroes, bringing them exposure to a wide swath of audiences and even, sometimes, the appearance of box office magnetism they may not have always possessed. Of course, Robert Downey Jr. was a well-known actor before Iron Man, but that movie turned him into a bona fide star by distilling certain aspects of his persona—the rapid-fire patter, the intelligent smarm, the off-kilter comic timing—into a super-charged, crowd-pleasing package. The same could be said of Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, or Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, among others. It’s less true, however, for Paul Rudd.
Despite retrofitting the character of Ant-Man to Rudd’s charms—distinct from Downey’s, but not too far apart from his innately comic likability—and producing three successful solo films, Scott Lang still plays a bit like Paul Rudd Lite. In other words, his performances in the Ant-Man trilogy lack a certain essential Paul Rudd-y quality. A Rudd fan might well leave the likes of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania unsatisfied, grasping onto just a few moments of doofus-y glory amidst an increased emphasis on universe-shifting actions and a disconnected ensemble cast. The movie’s few scenes of Scott Lang strolling around his San Francisco neighborhood feel like the “real” Paul Rudd skipping through a normal Paul Rudd movie, on his way to something that asks both more and, in its own way, far less of his skill set.
What, then, are examples of Rudd at his purest and Ruddiest? For any casual or newfound Rudd fans who have enjoyed his recent superhero run but haven’t experienced the full breadth of his onscreen performances, we’ve compiled this list. To be clear, these are not necessarily his all-time best performances (though many of them are), nor his best overall movies (though many of them are that, too, albeit in a wildly inaccurate order). These are the movies where Paul Rudd most clearly defines himself on screen, via his most inimitable qualities, from his light-footed physicality to his mixture of goofy enthusiasm and wide-eyed sarcasm. Rudd has taken an unusual path through movie stardom; these movies reveal the gracefulness behind that navigation.
Here are the 10 Paul Ruddiest Performances by Paul Rudd:
Obviously, there’s great power to Rudd’s Clueless performance, not least for its ability to leapfrog over his truly off-putting work in Halloween 6 and establish him as a viable leading man. That said, as much as Rudd obviously has it in this movie, there are certain limiting factors that prevent it from climbing higher on this list. Rudd need not play a hilarious wiseass; in fact, many of his Ruddiest roles have a sincerity similar to his Clueless character Josh—the stepbrother-turned-love-interest of Alicia Silverstone’s Cher. But Josh’s “complaint rock”-listening, politically active, slightly hangdog nice guy doesn’t have quite the same spring in his step that Rudd would gain in later parts—including one in a far less famous movie by Clueless auteur Amy Heckerling.
9. Our Idiot Brother
“I’ll watch Dune with you!” With one indescribably delightful line-reading, Ned—a dopey, feckless hippie type you’d expect Rudd to caricature in a one-scene cameo, not make the subject of a feature film—becomes a major Rudd character. The context: Jeremy (Adam Scott), neighbor and potential love interest of Ned’s sister Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), walks into Miranda’s apartment mentioning that the director’s cut of David Lynch’s Dune is about to start on Showtime. Ned, open-hearted and enthusiastic to a fault, immediately offers to watch Dune with his sister’s friend and starts doing an obtuse bit from the cult film. It’s 30 seconds of screen time that doubles as shorthand for the ingratiating buddy energy Rudd brings to so many projects—an easy explanation for why he stars in more comedies about male friendship than traditional rom-coms.
8. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Like Our Idiot Brother, this is an outlier character that Rudd manages to turn back around, somehow, into something essential and of a piece with his more grounded work. As Brian Fantana, Rudd is playing an absolute buffoon opposite world-class buffoons Will Ferrell, David Koechner, and Steve Carell, as part of the Channel 4 News Team; no question that he’s got the chops to do this, but what makes Fantana a particularly Ruddy version of a cartoony ’70s chauvinist? With Ferrell as the pompous ringleader, Koecher on hound-dog duty, and Carell playing a blithering idiot, Rudd brings a boyish energy to the team; he’s the one proudly showing off his closet full of noxious colognes (or, in the sequel, specialty condoms), presiding over “Panda Watch!” and wistfully recalling a makeout session in a K-mart bathroom, wondering if it was true love. It’s a prescient use, even subversion, of Rudd’s forever-young charm.
7. Captain America: Civil War
As mentioned in the intro, Paul Rudd isn’t really at his best playing Scott Lang… in the Ant-Man movies. He is, however, quite hilarious in the part when thrust into bigger Avengers adventures, and freed of the miniscule, ant-sized “anti-” pointlessly affixed to his “hero” in the main Ant-series. In Captain America: Civil War, which is more of a proper Avengers movie than the Langless Infinity War, Scott is recruited to pick a side in the fight between Iron Man (b/w War Machine, Black Panther, Vision, Spider-Man, and, temporarily at least, Black Widow) and Captain America (b/w Hawkeye, Bucky, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch). Ultimately, his dorky enthusiasm combined with his lack of deep-cut Avengers knowledge (cheerfully referring to Hawkeye as “arrow guy”) helps tip the scales in favor of Cap—and his self-delighted reaction to reversing his ant-suit’s tech to briefly become Giant Man is one of the Ruddiest moments in cinema.
6. This Is 40
Rudd and Leslie Mann made for endearing, well-drawn supporting characters in Knocked Up, as the long-married-with-children counterparts to that film’s central barely-couple dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. Audiences seemed understandably less enamored of these characters’ struggles at feature length in this Judd Apatow dramedy, probably his most purely self-indulgent feature as a director. But Rudd’s Pete is a nuanced and sometimes bravely unlikable about what might happen to a Paul Rudd Character (quippy, whimsical, cool) as he ages into middle age: The quips become more barbed, the whimsy becomes an escape mechanism, and any perceived coolness is lost on the increasing number of younger, cooler people in the world. Rudd manages to avoid pulling punches on the sometime selfishness of this character while making it obvious why Apatow would be so pleased to make this handsome bastard his on-screen avatar.
5. Wet Hot American Summer
A movie that arguably changed Rudd’s career as much as Clueless did, this David Wain-directed spoof (Rudd has the distinction of appearing in three of the only effective spoof movies of the 21st century) casts him as Andy, a total dickwad of a camp counselor so engaged in sucking face with Lindsay (Elizabeth Banks) that at least one camper drowns on his watch. The key scene here is one where Andy is admonished by his boss (Janeane Garofalo) to clean up the dish and silverware he’s just senselessly thrown on the floor, and proceeds with a veritable symphony of bratty sighing and glowering. In his most charming roles, the slow-aging Rudd has a youthful zeal; here, he reveals the obnoxious little boy barely below the surface of a supposed cool guy.
4. Prince Avalanche
Once Wet Hot and Anchorman cemented Rudd as a comic star, he didn’t turn back and do much drama; the serious parts of Ant-Man movies are about as straight as he’s played it in the big-studio movies that dominate his later-period filmography, with the occasional streaming experiment standing in for the indies of yore. One lovely exception is this David Gordon Green movie where Rudd and Emile Hirsch play coworkers and friends tasked with particularly desolate work: repainting traffic lines on roads through a forest recently devastated by a fire. Alvin, Rudd’s character, is a more precious brand of loser than he usually plays, attempting to lord some outdoorsy authority over his de facto assistant Lance (Hirsch); together, especially with Rudd’s mustache, they look a bit like the Mario Brothers. Their interactions are largely comic, but Green teases a lyrical grace out of Rudd that his broader comedies don’t have time for. The other indies Green made around this time, Joe and Manglehorn, make more direct and specific use of the old-school stars at their center (Nicolas Cage and Al Pacino, respectively). Prince Avalanche feels less explicitly like a star text, yet it does feel like a study of Rudd’s place on the spectrum of cinematic masculinity.
3. I Could Never Be Your Woman
Rudd reunited with his Clueless director Amy Heckerling for this long-shelved rom-com which, for all intents and purposes, went straight to DVD, years after completion. (In a later era, it would have been swiftly rescued by a streamer.) The movie, about a fortysomething TV showrunner (Michelle Pfeiffer) navigating a romance with a younger actor (Rudd), is a little uneven; the showbiz-centric plot is pretty inside-baseball, and as smartly as it confronts a middle-aged woman’s fears about the aging process, it also feels very much of its mid-2000s moment. But Heckerling gives her two leads plenty to do, and Rudd in particular goes through some inspired literal motions: pumping his arms in victory after nailing an audition (scored by the New Pornographers song “Twin Cinema,” no less), kissing himself passionately in a mirror, cycling through a variety of dance-floor moves, and making out with his future Quantumania co-star Pfeiffer, among other bursts of energy. It’s a performance that could easily become manic or wearying; instead, Rudd goes the distance.
Plenty would probably favor I Love You, Man, where Rudd plays a sweetly hapless guy who doesn’t have any close male friends, and enters into a bromance with free-spirited Jason Segel; his love of Rush and invocation of the timeless cringephrase “slappa da bass” ensure the film’s place in Rudd’s filmography. However, there’s something a little milquetoast about that whole movie – and if you want Rudd as a regular-but-handsome guy flopping through a series of social encounters, Wanderlust blows I Love You, Man out of the water. Rudd and Jennifer Aniston play a couple who chuck their yuppie striving and join a hippie commune; none of the antics that ensue can match Rudd simply attempting to psych himself up in a mirror before a free-love encounter with another commune member. The only unbelievable part is that he can’t seal the deal; isn’t his lack of game kind of swoonworthy? (Deleted scenes where Rudd’s scene partner Malin Akerman can’t stop cracking up seem to bear this out.) Metatextually, Wanderlust generates the perfect tension between Rudd’s everyman haplessness and his comedy-star dexterity; it’s never been more clear how entwined those two qualities are.
1. How Do You Know
James L. Brooks often struggles with titling his later-period movies, and eventually settled on something pretty vague and unmemorable for this notorious box office bomb. I would have just called it Paul Rudd Tries to Cross a Street. About halfway through the movie, Rudd’s character George excitedly hurries back to his apartment with some drinks for Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), the softball player he’s crushing on. While crossing the street, he sees her through his apartment window, and nearly gets hit by a car in the process – at which point he pauses, apologizes to her from a distance, and does a kind of nerdy, self-deprecating little mid-street tap-dance while she looks on, baffled. The moment lasts all of about ten seconds, and could have easily been excised. The same goes for another street-set moment, where George asks his imposing father (Jack Nicholson), “are you going to make me literally run from bad news?” before, yes, sprinting away from him. Yet both moments feel so key to George as a character, which is to say as a Paul Rudd character. On paper, George is both halves of the central couple from the Brooks-produced Say Anything…, inelegantly combining Lloyd Dobler’s nerdy persistence and Diane Court’s rigorous honesty (and fractured relationship with a larcenous parent) into one. That’s not the movie’s only kinship with Cameron Crowe; like Crowe’s later-period films, this Brooks project (at present, his last theatrical film) is somewhat misbegotten. It’s like a 1940s romance translated into a bunch of awkward and prickly behavior – and Rudd in particular makes this weirdness sound endearing. Witherspoon is good, too, and watching Rudd bounce off of her is vastly preferable to watch sparks fly from this slight mismatch than the synthetic opposites-attract “chemistry” of, say, Your Place or Mine. Moreover, with so little in the way of a normal movie to get in the way, this feels like the ultimate Rudd performance. He delivers a witty commentary on his own slapstick-prone physicality, somehow also powered by that sincerity reaching all the way back to Clueless. “You’ve done me a great turn” is a line Rudd somehow sells at one point, and in regards to this movie, it sounds wrong: No, he’s doing the movie a favor. But maybe George’s oddball optimism is right after all; Brooks gives him almost unimaginable leeway to give a performance that no one else could pull off—even if it’s in service of a movie no one apparently wanted to see. No matter how many superhero movies he does, flourishing in semi-obscurity is a big part of Rudd’s whole deal.
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.