Cosi fan Tucci

On "Supernova" and the joys of Stanley

Cosi fan Tucci
Stanley Tucci in “Supernova”

One of the things that ran through my mind as I was watching “Worth” (see last Friday’s entry) was how lucky we are to have Stanley Tucci. He plays a supporting role in that film, the gadfly conscience to Michael Keaton’s lead, and that fits: Tucci has long possessed the knack of stealing movies from above-the-title talent.  We don’t even think of him as a “star,” although I bet most of us smile at the thought of him, and he’s become a bona fide sex symbol in the wake of his CNN travel series “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy”. But we don’t think of Tucci as just an “actor,” either. He’s more like that friend who’s wise, witty, centered, and, above all, reliable – a guarantor of thoughtful pleasures. A creative artist who takes joy in his professionalism and whose professionalism is a joy. Even his name is fun to say.

But, as I said, he doesn’t get enough lead roles – maybe the suits in the front office don’t think he sells tickets or maybe he just knows that the character roles are where the good stuff happens. Very few performers can hold their own against Meryl Streep at her Streepiest, as Tucci did in both “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) and “Julie & Julia” (2009). He works the corners of the screen, side-eyeing the audience as if he knows we’re in on the joke.

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I can think of only one terrible Tucci performance, and that’s as the child murderer in Peter Jackson’s thorough disemboweling of “The Lovely Bones” (2009). Tucci’s acting there is gimmicky and uncertain, a true case of miscasting (not to mention dreadful hair and makeup). Unsurprisingly, this represents the only time he has ever been nominated for an Academy Award. Far better to stick with “The Big Night” (1996), a now classic comedy-drama that the actor co-directed with Campbell Scott and which stars Tucci and Tony Shalhoub as two Italian immigrants running a restaurant on the Jersey shore in the 1950s. Primo is the artist and Secundo is the businessman, and while Tucci plays Secundo, it’s easy and amusing to imagine a remake of “The Big Night” where the two actors switch roles.

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci in “Supernova”

Like that film, this year’s “Supernova” comes close to giving Tucci a lead by pairing him with another much-loved performer, Colin Firth. A British drama released to US theaters in February without much fanfare and now available for free streaming (on Hulu and Kanopy) and rental (on Amazon, Google Play, Apple TV, and elsewhere), it’s an intimate drama set amidst epic backdrops. Tucci plays Tusker and Firth plays Sam, a couple of 20 years facing the end of the road. Tusker has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and the two are taking a final vacation in England’s Lake Country, seeing the sights and visiting friends and family while they can. It sounds like a downer, but the movie’s sad in the most benevolent way and often very funny when it comes to couples bickering over directions. And there’s a party scene, warm and teary, where all the film’s strands come together with a cosmic sigh.

Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth in “Supernova”

Tusker is American and brash, a writer watching in horror as his handwriting shrinks to a scrawl over the pages of his notebooks. Sam is British, shy by nature, a pianist unable to imagine life without his partner shielding him from the sun. (The role is a companion piece to Firth’s grieving lover in 2011’s “A Single Man.”) “Supernova” is written and directed by Harry MacQueen, himself an actor, and while the screenplay threatens to devolve into a debate over the ethics of suicide toward the end, the movie as a whole is remarkably attuned to life’s fragility, its wonder, and the necessity of other people. Tusker and Sam are two small, scared, resilient figures making their way across a vast landscape, as are we all. I for one am glad that Stanley Tucci is playing one of them.

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