The Mark Ruffalo Mystique

Sara Vilkomerson | July 22, 2010
Mark Ruffalo in "The Kids Are All Right"
Mark Ruffalo in "The Kids Are All Right"

This weekend moviegoers who are a bit beaten down by a summer of vampires, airbenders, and Tom Cruise can instead go and see The Kids are All Right, by Lisa Cholodenko, which has been accruing buzz since its Sundance Film Festival premiere in January, and in the last week has made film critics reach for new superlatives — it’s currently boasting a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. And rightly so! The Kids are All Right not only has a near-perfect script — the quirky-but-not-too-quirky tale of a married lesbian couple and the two children they conceived with the help of a sperm donor — but it’s elevated by excellent performances by leads Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. But it also has a secret weapon, and no little one at that: Mark Ruffalo. And not just Mark Ruffalo, but Mark Ruffalo playing the most Mark Ruffalo-like Mark Ruffalo part ever.

But what is it? Is it his big labrador-like head? Or that gravelly-cracked voice that imbues vulnerability into every mild sentence?

It’s not really a spoiler to say that once Ruffalo’s character, sperm-donor Paul — a charming man-boy — enters the lives of this modern-on-the-outside-familiar-on-the-inside family things get all sorts of topsey turvey, including one of the moms actually switching teams for a bit of sheet time with Paul. Which only proves a theory we’ve had for some time now: everyone wants to make out with Mark Ruffalo. We’re kidding… sort of. But how many actors have the ability — or, in old fashioned Hollywood speak, a quality — that gets smart women in a swoon and has their male companions bob their heads in universal acceptance; ‘oh yeah, I like that guy.’

But what is it? Is it his big Labrador-like head? Or that gravelly-cracked voice that imbues vulnerability into every mild sentence? A.O. Scott, in his The New York Times review wrote, “The shorthand description of Paul is that he is played by Mark Ruffalo, with specific reference to the goodnatured, feckless brother Mr. Ruffalo played in You Can Count on Me. Paul is sort of like a cleaned-up, more self-confident version of that guy, with the same hesitant intonation, crooked smile (behind a graying goatee) and a slightly dangerous charm.”

Indeed it was probably 2000’s You Can Count on Me that Ruffalo Mystique began, or at least when audiences took note of him — sitting on the floor smoking and speaking frankly to his young nephew, sneaking said kid out on an illicit trip to a bar,  which does not end in disaster but with the boy winning a pool game and getting held up by his ankles to loud cheers. That Ruffalo played a character who seemed to understand that he could do nothing but disappoint those who counted on him didn’t make him any less likeable.

Or, perhaps, more clarifying is The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, in his review for The Kids are All Right, who writes; “Paul, a bearded restaurateur, turns out to be randy but unthreatening, warm to the touch but cool about stuff, with a dash of smugness in his easy smile, all of which is a way of saying that he is played by Mark Ruffalo. One of these days, someone should cast Ruffalo as a quarterback, or a Cistercian monk, just to see what happens.”

Lane, as usual, seems to get at the heart of it – particularly the “warm to the touch but cool about stuff.”  We’re not convinced of the smugness part, if anything Paul struck us as a guy who can’t believe his good luck, whether its picking vegetables in his sun-dappled garden or bedding gorgeous waitresses and confused lesbians. But then again, maybe that’s just the Ruffalo Mystique, striking again; no matter what he’s doing, we give him the benefit of the doubt. Even if, as the latest rumor goes, he puts on a pair of sweatpants and plays the Incredible Hulk. Do not make the Ruffalo angry.