Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Puddles of What I'm Enjoying: Bill Hader as J.P. Spamley in Ralph Breaks the Internet

In a new sporadic series, Matt Domino shares a brief look at a bit of pop culture, entertainment, or literature he is enjoying.

I saw a lot of movies in 2018, more than I probably have in my entire life. This is because of two factors: Moviepass and the fact that I am in love with someone who enjoys going to the movies. And because I have seen so many movies this year, I have been thinking about performances and how to write about and judge them.

Wesley Morris wrote about the best performances of the year for the New York Times. Amanda Dobbins and Andrew Gruttadaro also wrote about the best performances of the year for The Ringer. Both of these lists took an expansive view on what constitutes a performance—and it is one I happen to agree with.

For instance, Morris’s list (and is there a more astute cultural critic alive than Morris, leaving aside his review of Mama Mia 2?) includes both Beyonce’s Coachella Performance and the Shredding Banksy (aka Love is in the Bin) alongside Lucas Hedges and his big year and Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer for Killing Eve.

Dobbins and Gruttadaro, in line with the Ringer’s overall approach, take a slightly more playful approach alongside their deep intelligence and earnestness. Their list includes The Central Park Duck and Fergie’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the NBA All-Star game next to more standard entries like Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born and Yalitza Aparicio in Roma.

These are both good lists, but they left off my two favorite performances of the year: Emma Stone in The Favourite and Bill Hader in Ralph Breaks the Internet. In the interest of time, I will explain my love of Stone’s performance as succinctly as possible. In The Favourite, it seemed, to me, that for the first time Stone put all of her gifts as an actress together to play Abigail Hill. She uses her big eyes to be at turns both sexy, conniving, and completely undone. Stone has proven herself to be a strong comedic actress as a host on Saturday Night Live, Easy A, and in her big break in Superbad and in The Favourite she plays slapstick well (any scene with her “love interest” Masham or in her hallway encounters with Harley) as well as well-timed dialogue and set pieces, specifically in her scenes with Rachel Weisz. With her delicate features and big lips, she plays both childish and ladylike; she balances being petulant and then repentant. The Favourite made me a believer in Emma Stone.

But my favorite performance of the year was Bill Hader as J.P. Spamley in Ralph Breaks the Internet. As I have previously written when discussing Phil Hartman, I am sucker for small performances, parts in sketches or films that could easily be throwaways if not for the actor inhabiting the role. Hartman was a master of this kind of acting. Stephen Root is another master, as witnessed in the second tale in the Coen Brothers’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Bill Hader has become one as well.

Hader has received plenty of acclaim and has made his way onto many “Best of” lists this year due to his HBO show Barry. I have not watched Barry in its entirety, but I have scene Ralph Breaks the Internet and thought long and hard about his performance as J.P Spamley, which consists of maybe 7 minutes of screen time in total.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is the sequel to Wreck it Ralph, which I did not see. Wreck it Ralph is about the lives of arcade game characters behind the screens of their games. Ralph Breaks the Internet is about what happens when those characters chase something of a macguffin into the actual world of the internet. The film is full of clever visualizations and characterizations of all the things we love and hate about the internet—the actions and movements of the avatars for actual internet users within the world of the internet are genius.

As part of this world, Hader plays J.P. Spamley who is the embodiment of a SPAM bot or pop-up ad. Hader plays the role as though he were Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca or Jimmy Cagney. Using his rubber band of a voice, Hader layers on World War II-era pleasantries and a hard to place “city” accent. Spamley is all well-meaning scams and slightly soiled digital clothes.

Spamley is a character that shouldn’t register alongside much broader and larger performances like John C. Reilly’s Ralph or Sarah Silverman’s Vanellope or even Taraji P. Henson’s Yesss, but somehow it does. The reason he does is because Hader wills him to matter. Hader’s choices are so specific—Spamley is a high-class, or at least high-mannered, huckster, not a sleazeball.

Hader even brings a small, somewhat throwaway, bit to great heights. Spamley has an odd sidekick named Gord. Gord is a short, bug-eyed...creature (it is unclear what he is, but the Disney Wikia lists him as a worm)...in a sweater who follows Spamley wherever he goes, but who seems to easily disappear. Whenever Spamley realizes he’s lost sight of Gord, he shouts in a piercing voice, “Gord!” and then Gord himself will appear. This is a bit that should run pretty thin, but somehow Hader puts enough desperation or abrupt exasperation into each line read that instead of becoming predictable, the bit becomes increasingly bizarre.

Late in the film, Ralph and Vanellope have gotten into a fight and Ralph has entered the “dark night of the soul” phase of the plot—he is at his lowest point. He is wandering around the main thoroughfare of the internet as it is depicted in the film and he comes across J.P. Spamley. Upon greeting Ralph, Spamley says, “Hey, where’s your little chum?” in reference to Vanellope. The way Hader delivered the line in the film, fully embodying this personification of a pop-up ad made me lose it with laughter and also struck me with a sense of awe. I don’t know if “chum” was written into the script, and for the purposes of this post I am going to assume it wasn’t. And so Hader’s decision to use that word and to deliver it in earnest as if he were J.P. Spamley was a piece of performative genius.

Bill Hader’s performance as J.P. Spamley is a small part of a larger animated movie that was successful both commercially and critically. I don’t want to make it sound like I am searching for a unique angle on my favorite performance of the year. There were plenty of other great performances in 2018: Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born, Jason Bateman in Game Night, Patricia Clarkson in Sharp Objects, and many others (don’t get me started on the performances in Roma).

But if there’s one hard lesson I’ve struggled to learn through my entire life, it is to appreciate small moments and pieces of joy when you stumble across them. Bill Hader’s performance as J.P. Spamley was a small piece of joy for me in 2018 and when I think of him and his entire career I will remember is ability to make a character like that stand out, which is a true sign of greatness.


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