Chris O’Donnell’s filmography
It is a measure of my deep affection for Chris O’Donnell’s adorableness that I hope to heck Hollywood doesn’t get to him and make him weird, or unkempt, or compelled to date models and take on projects just to show he can Stretch as an Actor. Now 25, the guy has made nine movies in seven years, and aside from a brief, harmless flirtation with flouncy hair and puffy shirts as d’Artagnan in the silly 1993 frat-house version of The Three Musketeers, he hasn’t made a wrong or foolish move yet. Even sculpted and shielded in anatomy-enhancing armor as best boy Robin in Batman Forever, O’Donnell projects a non-neurotic decency, intelligence, and enthusiasm that make him a pleasure to watch. His specialty is emotional accessibility — he probably loses every hand of poker he plays — but he’s also proficient at demonstrations of high spirits, hotheadedness, mischievousness, and fine breeding.
Then there’s the heartthrob thing — that smile, that chin, those pretty blue peepers. It works, this package: The boy may never play the director with a fondness for angora sweaters or the moody mountain man who wrestles with bears or the athletic cop who keeps the bus from blowing up, but neither will he use dirty language and trash hotels in order to convince you that he’s got feelings. He doesn’t need to. Reviewing his career on video confirms that O’Donnell’s character range may be narrow, but at his age he’s got nice depth, with room for further tilling as he matures. His style is unstyled — simple, unmannered, a clean sheet on which to project your own desires. And then, as I think I’ve mentioned, there are those pretty blue peepers.
In the new-to-tape Circle of Friends, O’Donnell’s accomplishment is mastering a respectable Irish accent for his role as Jack, a handsome college student who wins the heart of Benny, a new girl at university (Minnie Driver, a terrific find). A big, warm comrade of a lass, Benny deprecates her looks as those of a ”rhinoceros,” but she’s self-confident enough to offer her heart to Jack — and he’s independent-minded enough to see her true beauty. That’s our Chris. There’s nothing much new to his performance — he’s as honorable as he is hunky, and he atones for his one transgression in this light, improbable romantic idyll (set in the innocent late ’50s in a small village outside of Dublin) with appropriate remorse. But eventually you’ll look back on Circle as one of the last movies the actor did before he attained a different kind of stardom — and one of the last in which he maintained a straight-arrow, side-parted haircut.
For now, you may want to revisit Circle as the movie that lulls you into believing that romance is possible with anyone. And then you may want to revisit O’Donnell’s career at other schools, in other preppy blazers. In that case, you’ll probably want to offset the cloying aroma of Scent of a Woman — in which Al Pacino, as a bitter, blind retired military man, grandstands his way to an Oscar, and O’Donnell, as his seeing-eye boy, is packed full of moral fiber — with School Ties. At least here, in a smaller role (the lead goes to Brendan Fraser as a Jewish student facing anti-Semitism at a fancy New England academy), he gets to temper the niceness his face advertises with some provocative weakness of character.
But to really get to the core of O’Donnell’s talent — to see what excited directors and audiences about him in the first place — dig deeper into the rental shelves (past his brief role as a Fine Young Fellow early in 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes) and watch him again in Men Don’t Leave. The kid was 18 back in 1988, when he stepped in front of the camera to play Jessica Lange’s older son, coping with the loss of his father and the loss of his home, and his performance is a marvel of naturalness. O’Donnell’s authentic responses to the stresses of young manhood and family life are accessible, perhaps, because he comes, from all reports, from a happy, intact family in which neither parent is Kit Culkin. But they’re also the mark of an actor who knows his strengths and thus retains an ever-widening circle of admirers.
Circle of Friends: B
Scent of a Woman: C
School Ties: B
Men Don’t Leave: A-