One of the first things one notices upon a quick glance of John C. Reilly’s IMDb page is his unassuming but inviting profile picture, a reminder of how much his presence alone can light up the screen. The second thing is that even his official bio can’t figure out a distinct and singular way of describing him: “Character actor, dramatic leading man, or hilarious comic foil?”
In honor of Reilly’s always welcome return to theaters as he once again voices Ralph in Wreck-It Ralph sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet, let’s break down his ten best performances to determine if there’s even an answer.
Reilly’s naturally intimidating, deep voice is countered by his adorable goofball personality. Perhaps that’s why when Disney cast their lead for an animated adventure about an ’80s video game villain who actually harbors a heart of gold underneath his menacing looks, the choice was clear. Within the first ten minutes of Wreck-it Ralph, Reilly finds a subtle balance between Ralph’s in-game character, a Donkey Kong-type building-destroying monster, and his private yearning to be understood by his peers—and maybe someday make an actual friend. The sequel digs deeper into Ralph’s fear of being alone, showcasing how the puppy dog traits he had in the first movie can turn into dangerous co-dependency if unchecked, giving Reilly more depths to explore.
Even Reilly’s most ardent critics (Is there even such a thing?) have to admit that when it comes to comedy, he’s fearless. Will Ferrell’s obviously in the same boat(s ‘n hoes), and that’s why the two have solidified themselves as a comedy duo, with their third co-lead project, the Sherlock Holmes parody Holmes & Watson, about to hit theaters. Step Brothers, their second collaboration, about two 40-year-olds still living with their parents having to finally face adult life, is best enjoyed if one approaches the characters not as silly man-children getting themselves into zany shenanigans, but seriously deranged caricatures who should probably be locked up somewhere. The satire on distinctly American arrested development is so thick, it’s essentially a live-action Beavis and Butthead. As the slightly smarter of the two, Reilly taps into the soul of an especially manipulative toddler.
The only bright spot in this bloated, CGI spectacle is John C. Reilly’s contagiously enthusiastic WWII veteran who’s been stranded on Skull Island for decades. The kook who went loopy after spending years in isolation is an especially unimaginative archetype in such hidden island adventures, but Reilly’s ability to automatically elevate even such tired material is on full display here, as he single-handedly creates the one memorable character in this disposable genre rethread.
If you want your dumb protagonist to appear smarter, you set him up with an even dumber sidekick. This popular Nascar comedy, Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s first co-starring project, adheres to that formula: Ferrell’s simple-minded racing superstar Ricky Bobby’s BRFF (Best Racing Friends Forever) Cal, played with a superhuman dedication to aggressive cluelessness by Reilly, is so stupid he can’t understand why Ricky’s mad at him after he steals his wife and screws his career over. The initial draw for an actor when portraying such a vapid-minded character would be to fully externalize his mental shortcomings by mugging to the camera. Reilly takes the opposite route by applying a natural and matter-of-fact energy to even the silliest line, taking the character at face value.
Paul Thomas Anderson and John C. Reilly’s second collaboration allowed Reilly to have a bit more fun than his dourer turn in Hard Eight. As the porn star with ambitions to become a magician in PTA’s epic tale of ’70s debauchery and the ensuing cultural crash during the Reagan era, Reilly knows exactly when to let loose—watch him closely during the group disco dance sequence—and when to allow bitter reality to set in. The role also brings out his uniquely self-aware brand of comedy, leading to some of the drama’s funniest moments via his bad porn acting and worse guitar playing. It probably takes a lot of work for such a gifted artist to leave his ego completely behind in order to suck at his art on camera for the sake of character consistency. Reilly makes it look effortless.
Writer/director Steve Conrad’s underrated dramedy about the cutthroat and cringe-inducingly awkward battle between two grocery store clerks (Reilly and Sean William Scott) going after the same managerial position highlights Reilly’s allure in capturing the underappreciated regular schmo who actually has a lot to offer to the world but is ignored due to his meek energy. Conrad’s goal with the premise is to angrily satirize the dog-eat-dog nature of the specifically American brand of capitalism, which can make even the most upstanding citizen do horrible things to get ahead. That’s why it’s key that before the bitter competition between the two clerks begin, we identify with their simple aspirations and root for them equally. As the representation of the middle-aged family man with perhaps one more big move left in him, Reilly succinctly communicates this repressed anxiety.
Before his starring turn in Hard Eight, Reilly filled small but distinguishable roles, enough to gather clout for the next part but not enough to make a big splash. That all changed when original superfan Paul Thomas Anderson became smitten with Reilly—as he says in a Boogie Nights commentary—and went after him when it came time to put together his first feature, a somber character drama about regret and second chances. Even with his most downtrodden and demoralized characters, Reilly still emanates a spark of hope. As the motiveless drifter taken in by Philip Baker Hall’s expert gambler for reasons easily predicted as the plot progresses, Reilly peels layer upon layer from a protagonist we thought we figured out during the first act.
Sure, Reilly’s Oscar-nominated role is fairly short on screen time, yet his character, the naïve sad sack (but decent husband) of the manipulative murderer Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) is an extremely important tonal element in this shiny adaptation of the groundbreaking Bob Fosse musical. Fosse’s bombastic jab at media’s manipulative power, especially in America, of course required its characters to be back-stabbing, double-crossing opportunists. When even some of the prisoners we’re meant to sympathize with are rotten to some degree, the audience instinctively seeks a moral anchor to which they can fully relate. As the purest soul in the story, Reilly’s Amos fills that gap splendidly, powered by the empathy Reilly injects into the part. His singing matching the versatility and power of his acting, he shines in his melancholic solo number, “Mr. Cellophane.”
When we first meet Reilly’s lovesick police officer—a man who yearns as much for a companion as he is loyal to the parameters of his job—he’s recording a message for a video dating service. Even though his position expects him to put on a tough and collected exterior, his insecurities and fear of emotional isolation comes through the occasional cracks in his voice. Paul Thomas Anderson’s dense yet delicate send-off to his beloved Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is full of characters lost in the wilderness of Southern California. The unexpected romance that blossoms between Reilly’s cop and Melora Walters’ drug addict trying to suppress severe childhood trauma gives us hope for humanity’s redemption; there’s a reason PTA ends his film on this couple.
The key to a great parody feature is to find a way for the audience to care about the characters while aggressively pointing out cinema’s devious tricks and manipulations to get the audience to care about said characters. Walk Hard, then, may be the best parody movie of the 21st century so far. In its center is the Johnny Cash-type Dewey Cox (Reilly), a country star cursed with a life that goes through the motions of a run-of-the-mill music biopic, the character an ostensible placeholder for skewing as many cliches of the genre as possible. Yet Reilly gets us to invest so much into the character by taking Cox as seriously as he would his dramatic roles. Pulling off the many disparate genres of music he’s expected to perform, he makes us believe that Dewey Cox is a real powerhouse in popular music history. Before him, only Spinal Tap has pulled off this feat, but Reilly does it all on his own.