Miss Banks

Elizabeth Banks: actress, comedian, cultural touchstone
Elizabeth Banks: actress, comedian, cultural touchstone

Yesterday I went to the Paramount to check out the AFF screening of Role Models, the new big-budget comedy from director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer). From the flash-mob parade of zombies on Congress Ave. regaling those of us waiting in line with cries for “equal rights!” and, of course, “brains!,” to the less flashy, less living-undead mob scene inside the packed theatre - where the laughs came easy, often, and loud - the mood could best be described as raucous and partisan.

Role Models is about two self-involved 30-year-old men (played by co-writer Paul Rudd and perpetual Stifler Seann William Scott) forced by court order to take part in a child-mentoring program. It co-stars Superbad breakout Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Christopher Guest Company player Jane Lynch, and several of Wain’s co-conspirators from the mid-Nineties comedy troupe the State.

Of course, the real star of the movie is Elizabeth Banks. I say that not because her role is the biggest or her performance is the best but rather because her appearance is the most significant. A movie star for just a few years, Miss Banks has quickly become the most ubiquitous, most sought-after, and perhaps most powerful actress of her generation. She is the rare Hollywood hinge, a performer who appears in seemingly every movie – defying the laws of time, space, and physics as she goes – who can all but guarantee box-office success with her imprimatur. She’s a predictor of a film’s success, proof of a director’s influence, a barometer of Hollywood sensibilities, an arbiter of public taste. She’s a talisman, a good-luck charm, a sorceress, warding off evil spirits and putting bodies in the seats.

Was there a Hollywood before Elizabeth Banks? If so, how did it survive? And how did it recognize itself?

This year alone, she is starring in no fewer than six movies – including Oliver Stone’s W. and Kevin Smith’s soon-to-be-released Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Add to these the 10 blockbusters she’s appeared in since she showed up on an episode of Sex & the City eight years ago, and you’ve got a woman who has – by her looks, by her skills, by her charm, by God only knows what supernatural, probably maleficent, means – shot up the ladder of success by tapping into the zeitgeist of our tentative age and making herself indispensable.

Like Picasso before her, Elizabeth Banks is an entertainer who has understood her time.

She reflects us back to ourselves.

She is us.

And we are her.

Only much, much less attractive.

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Austin Film Festival 2008

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