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The TBTS Actor Evaluation: Michael Keaton

May 13, 2011

Who doesn’t love Michael Keaton? Not only is he a stalwart of eighties and early nineties cinema, but Keaton has always had the good sense to stay out of the limelight, dutifully doing his job as an entertainer without boring us all with his relationships, Twitter feed and unnecessary need to keep his face on camera twenty-four hours a day. During Keaton’s recent stint in the beautifully absurd 100th episode of 30 Rock, where he played a harried janitor trying to fix a gas leak poisoning the cast, it got us to thinking: where the hell has he gone? We need Michael Keaton back right about now. It also got us to wondering how the actor would fare when called onto the carpet. So here’s to you, Michael Keaton, and good luck today in what is perhaps the ultimate test of an actor’s worth — The TBTS Official Actor Evaluation. (Note: Not all movies are accounted for in this list, but the majority have been considered.)

Night Shift (+2) — Lot of folks forget this movie. Lot of folks shouldn’t. In his first big-role motion picture outing (and one of director Ron Howard’s early films), Keaton played loose cannon morgue attendant Bill Blazejowski, who lures Henry Winkler’s dull Chuck Lumley into an elicit career as an after-hours pimp. It’s kind of surprising no one’s decided to remake this, actually, but it still hold up. It’s worth revisiting and a lot of fun, and I’m not just saying that because as a young adolescent with access to HBO, it had slutty semi-nude women in it.

Mr. Mom (+3) — In the film that put Keaton on the map as a comic lead, Keaton’s harried stay-at-home dad cemented his status as a go-to eighties comic. He also co-starred with Teri Garr and Martin Mull, which in 2011 means virtually nothing, but in 1983 was solid company to be in. If you remember the name Schooner Tuna at all, it’s because of Mr. Mom. Virtually unseen on television these days, for many years after its release, Mr. Mom held strong in the replay circuit.

Johnny Dangerously (+2) — Continuing his run as a big comic star of the early eighties, Johnny Dangerously wasn’t the greatest comedy ever, but it’s weird and funny and — though aged — it was a pretty solid comedy for 1984. The pre-Goodfellas tale of a kid growing up in the ranks of the Irish mob had a lot of great gags and memorable lines, and like Mr. Mom, Keaton anchors an ensemble cast featuring Griffin Dunn, Marilu Henner and Joe Piscopo (again, super-eighties alert) with dexterity.

Gung Ho (+1) — Gotta be honest, I was never a big Gung Ho fan, but then again I was only eleven years old in 1986, so a lot of the context was lost on me at the time. Feel free to bump this one a notch if you appreciated it more. The working-class comedy (and another Ron Howard joint) about blue-collar automotive workers facing a Japanese takeover gave Keaton the opportunity to play a bit of straight man, which would serve him later.

Touch and Go (-1) — Keaton as a hockey star who enters a romance with Maria Conchita Alonso. File this in the same place as Surrender with Sally Field and Overboard with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.

The Squeeze (-1) — A caper starring Keaton as a gambler thrust into a “web of intrigue” P.I. caper about a mysterious parcel with Rae Dawn Chong and Meat Loaf, The Squeeze saw Keaton starting to move away from silly comedies, but this one was pretty forgettable. Straight eighties, right down to Rae Dawn Chong’s involvement.

Beetle Juice (+4) — Score big for Keaton. It’s crazy that Tim Burton, given what we know about him now, saw Keaton as the right fit for the “human exorcist” employed by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis to rid their home of living people, but his Beetle Juice is a completely bonkers performance. As Burton’s big burst onto the scene, in 1987 there weren’t many movies like Beetle Juice, and still remains one of Burton’s weird, gothic best.

Clean and Sober (+2) — Coming off the madcap Beetle Juice, Keaton slows it down as an in-demand real estate agent spiraling out of control with cocaine and drinking. The first big shot we get of Keaton as a serious actor, and though it seems somewhat cookie cutter in the pantheon of  dramatic “alcoholic” movies of the later eighties (Clean and Sober, Barfly), Keaton’s strong performance can’t be denied — nor can his choice to stretch his legs.

The Dream Team (+2) — …And back to screwball. Keaton plays the lead in another comic ensemble (also starring Christopher Lloyd and Peter Boyle) as a mental institution worker who decides to take some of his patients out on the town for the day. A 1989 movie that feels like it should have been made in 1983, but you can’t beat those co-stars.

Batman (+3) — The first Burton Batman, and without question the best until Nolan came ’round. His Beetle Juice karma cashed in with the gloomy director and again Burton saw something in Keaton that no one would have thought to peg (seriously, in 1989 would you have picked this casting decision?). But Keaton’s a charming Bruce Wayne and plays the role with a great semi-comic sincerity that bounces nicely off Nicholson’s Joker.

Pacific Heights (+2) — Following the early nineties “psycho who live in your neighborhood and are part of your life” era (Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Fatal Attraction), Keaton stars as Carter Hayes, a cockroach enthusiast and certifiable nutjob landlord to poor Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith. It’s not great, but it works, and again our boy goes in a completely new direction.

One Good Cop (-2) — If there’s one thing you can’t accuse Keaton of, it’s being typecast. One Good Cop isn’t a great cop movie or a particularly good movie in general, and it’s formulaic in almost every sense. But we learned one thing: Michael Keaton can play a cop. And a good one, I guess.

Much Ado About Nothing (+3) — Note that avoiding-typecasting thing I just mentioned as Keaton takes on the incredibly incompetent constable Dogberry, chewing scenery as one of Bill Shakespeare’s middle-of-play comic scenery chewers. And directed by Kenneth Branagh, the film is also a forgotten though solid adaptation of the Bard.

My Life (+1) —  Manipulative but effective. Keaton stars as a terminally ill man preparing for his own death. If you can watch this movie without crying, I suggest you go back to Mars, alien.

The Paper (+2) — Most people would give this movie only one point or less because it was a critical flop, but I’m going to give it two points because I think it’s a tremendously entertaining movie. Keaton teams again with director Ron Howard to ground an ensemble cast in a film about a frenzied newspaper editor trying to get a story right before printing. Actually, you know what? If you haven’t ever seen The Paper, you should watch it. It’s a good film, even if it’s a bit all over the place at times. And it’s got a great cast.

Speechless (-1) — Geena Davis (what the hell happened to her, by the way?) and Keaton star as warring speechwriters on either sides of a political campaign. It’s a serviceable romantic comedy, I suppose, but kind of ho-hum.

Multiplicity (+3) — Back to his old tricks as a screwball comic lead, Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day foll0w-up Multiplicity stars Keaton as a busy inventor who clones himself to get more done. Keaton plays several roles, all variations on the same character, and Ramis made a good call picking him for the role.

Jackie Brown (0) — I’m probably going to take a lot of flack for this, but even though I’m a big Tarantino guy, I was never a big Jackie Brown fan (I’m sorry, but with a few exceptions, I just don’t think Elmore Leonard novels make good movies). My friend Craig, however, raises the point that even though it’s not a great movie, Michael Keaton is probably one of the best small-role guys in it, which is a fair point. We’ll call this one a wash.

Desperate Measures (-1) — Returning back to his Pacific Heights days, Keaton is a psychopathic patient holding a hospital hostage as cop Andy Garcia tries to find a donor for his son’s illness. Eh.

Jack Frost (-3) — Creepy CGI and a creepier storyline contribute to a poor score in Keaton’s family film Jack Frost, about a dad who dies and comes back as a snowman. Kinda weird, I think you’ll agree.

Out of Sight (+4) — Remember what I said about Elmore Leonard novels adapted into feature films? This is one of the good ones. Keaton reprises his role as detective Ray Nicolette in a great ensemble cast starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez (back before we realized she wasn’t all that great of an actress).

A Shot at Glory (0) — I can’t judge this, because honestly I’d never even heard of it. But it stars Robert Duvall and Keaton in the tale of a struggling Scottish football team. Sounds interesting, though.

Live From Baghdad (+2) — Post 9/11, Keaton stars as journalist Robert Weiner in this HBO movie about CNN reporters dealing with touchy ethical choices during the Gulf War. A TV movie that was good enough to be released in theaters, but wasn’t, so woefully fewer people saw it.

First Daughter (-2) — A by-the-numbers family film wherein Keaton plays the President trying to reign in his daughter studying abroad. The weirdest thing about this movie is that it was made in 2004 and Katie Holmes basically plays a kid, but she would marry Tom Cruise less than two years later. Sorry, I can’t stop thinking about that weirdness when I see this movie.

White Noise (-3) — What could have been an intriguing thriller about ghosts talking on tape recorders turns into a jump-cut “boo” movie as Keaton plays a man who thinks he’s communicating with his dead wife (spoiler alert: ghosts are evil, except in Ghost Dad). If only his wife had come back as a snowman instead.

Herbie Fully Loaded (-3) — Oh Michael Keaton, we can’t fault you for this. After all, it was Disney, and the Herbie Franchise. It’s not your fault you couldn’t see into Lindsay Lohan’s future. Or Breckin Meyer’s, for that matter.

Cars (+2) — Now this was a good Disney film. Much better choice, buddy.

The Other Guys (+2) — In a movie with a lot of stuff to like, Keaton’s TLC-quoting, Bed Bath & Beyond-moonlighting police captain was one of the best. 

Toy Story 3 (+3) — In what was in all likelihood the best movie of 2010, Keaton played the duplicitous but ultimately semi-heroic Ken doll. And was pitch-perfect in an absolutely loaded cast of voice actors.


Michael Keaton’s Overall Score: 25

The hastily-configured scoring system:

50 or higher: You have made a ton of fantastic movies.

40-50: You’ve done pretty well for yourself. Good on ya.

30-40: We still like you. But you need to pick it up a little.

20-30: You’ve made some good movies. But probably more bad ones.

10-20: You either lost it or you never had it.

0-10: Many of your films are still available on VHS at an interstate truck stop.

0 or negative points: You are comedian Jackie Mason.

The Analysis: If you’re really looking at the Michael Keaton oeuvre, this low technical score doesn’t do the actor justice. Michael Keaton has made a lot of movies, but his lack of big-ticket Oscar types and his proclivity in the eighties to star in pretty quintessentially eighties films with quintesentially eighties co-stars (Rae Dawn Chong! Maria Conchita Alonso! Kathy Baker!) sell him tremendously short. Also, some duds more recently in his career (White Noise, Herbie Fully Loaded, Jack Frost) deliver a big hit to his numbers. When all’s said and done, I think we can all agree we love Michael Keaton and wish he’d come back. If nothing else than to take us back to a simpler time, when movies were just plain entertaining — because he made a lot of those and we didn’t have jobs, families, or shit to do when we watched them. When that was the case, Michael Keaton, you were totally our guy.

One Comment
  1. Anonymous permalink
    March 4, 2012 9:48 am

    I have always loved Michael Keaton as an actor. I just watched Multiplicity for the nth time, and still laugh out loud at some of the antics. As for his role and Batman – the best. Sexy, complex, sensitive. Also, good for him that he avoids the limelight and lives his life for himself and his personal relationships. I’ve always thought that actors take themselves too seriously. If you have actual talent, once you are recognized publically, the rest will take care of itself.

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