It has been over a decade since Friends ended its ten season run, but for millions of her loyal fans, Jennifer Aniston will always be the character she played on the popular sitcom. Rachel Green is funny – but not too funny. Pretty – but not too pretty. Sexy – but not too sexy. Scatterbrained – but not too scatterbrained. Our friend!
Aniston is someone who came into our homes every week for ten years, someone we think we know. We think we have the right to call her “Jen” because we stuck with her through every twist and turn of the on-again-off-again relationship with Ross. We witnessed the hair-dos and the fashion choices and the ups and downs, and the baby. Our BFF! The girl-next-door who put on a plucky face and soldiered on when her husband dumped her for Angelina Jolie! Lonely Jen! Tragic Jen! The patron saint of jilted women everywhere!
The devotion Aniston still inspires is almost as intense and scary as the hatred. News footage I saw of fans shrieking, “Jennifer! Jennifer!” as she walked a Leicester Square red carpet literally gave me the chills. What must it be like to be famous to that degree, even more famous than a famous film star, and to be thronged by people convinced that they know you, that they own you, and that by extension you owe them?
But the Aniston-haters are not so very different from the Aniston-lovers; she is hated for the exact same reasons that she’s loved – because she was in a popular sitcom for ten years, and the naysayers are unable to see beyond that. And both factions make it their business to dissect her private life as though they’re privy to its secrets, to analyse her clothes and make-up as indications of her psychological state, and to lob invective at each other in the continuing Team Aniston vs Team Jolie wars, or the I’m-too-cool-for-anything-to-do-with-Friends brigade.
But there are three things we should realise about Jennifer Aniston:
1) You don’t spend a decade in a well written sitcom without acquiring razor-sharp comic timing and an ability to give shading to characters who might in lesser hands be caricatures.
2) At least some of the loathing she inspires is due to so many of her film roles having been in that most despised of genres – the rom-com.
3) The reputation she has somehow been saddled with for being “box-office poison” is false. With few exceptions, her films have made money.
And even some of those flops are worth revisiting. Wanderlust is an Apatow-produced comedy that might not be thigh-slappingly funny, but as a portrait of a modern relationship under strain from economic as well as emotional factors (it starts off a bit like a comic version of Gone Girl), it hits the mark, particularly as Aniston is playing opposite the always reliable Paul Rudd. Brad Bird’s animated gem The Iron Giant, in which she provided the voice of the kid’s mom, is an unsung classic that deserves to be as widely appreciated as, say, the Toy Story films. Office Space, in which she was underused in a boring girlfriend role, is already a cult film in some quarters.
Indeed, she has played her share of boring girlfriend roles in which her talents were criminally underrused, but hitching her star to those of Jim Carrey (giving her bigger boobs in Bruce Almighty) or Adam Sandler (Just Go With It, a clumsy Sandlerisation of the already contrived 1969 comedy Cactus Flower, with Jen in the Ingrid Bergman role), or blending into an ensemble rom-com cast (something at which she has had plenty of practice) in He’s Just Not Into You, enabled her to add some smash-hits to her CV. And Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money (2006) showed her at ease in an all-female ensemble cast opposite such oft-nominated heavyweights as Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener and Joan Cusack.
Even so, in nearly every case where Aniston has received star or equal billing, the box-office takings have been substantial – she is one of the few female stars who can command audiences worldwide. “The Rachel” is not just a hair-do, but a performance, one on which she has been ringing sometimes intriguing variations for over a decade. There’s Rachel with a gay friend in The Object of My Affection (her first teaming with Rudd, and one of the first rom-coms to acknowledge that a girl’s best friend is often homosexual). There’s Rachel as Manic Pixie Dreamgirl in Along Came Polly, a film that cunningly subverts the cliché by casting her apparent flake as the Voice of Reason opposite Ben Stiller’s neurotic screw-up. There’s Rachel falling out of love with Vince Vaughn in The Break-Up, a reverse rom-com that bravely addresses the decline of a relationship rather than its flowering.
In Marley and Me, Rachel played a second fiddle to a Labrador Retriever (played by 22 different dogs) but is there not something Retriever-esque about the actress herself? The sleek blondness, long silky hair and eagerness to please? By now, Aniston must have run every conceivable variation on the Rachel persona, but is she capable of leaving it behind? It’s not often she has strayed outside her Comfort Zone, but the results are interesting enough to make you wish she’d try it more often – not least because otherwise she risks getting trapped like Goldie Hawn, another former TV actress entirely capable of straight dramatic roles, but was stuck playing the blonde airhead well past the age where such a persona seems not so much dizzy as demented.
In The Good Girl (2002), beautifully scripted by Freaks and Geeks alumnus Mike White, Aniston was terrific as a Texas Madame Bovary, a careworn shopgirl who has an affair with a younger co-worker, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s a deglamorised, authentic and unpatronising performance, with no Rachel in it at all. Three years later, she subverted her girl-next-door image even further in Derailed, a modern noir in which her attempted adulterous tryst with fellow commuter Clive Owen goes horribly wrong, leading to rape, blackmail and murder. It’s an intriguing set-up for a thriller that ends up scuppered by plot contrivances and Vincent Cassel’s hilarious but hammy turn as a villain who (literally, in one scene) has Owen by the balls.
There might not be any Rachel in Horrible Bosses, for which the actress wears a brunette wig, and strips to her bra and knickers (what’s the point of spending all that time in the gym if you can’t show off your flat tummy?) as a predatory nymphomaniac dentist – but of course the whole point of the “joke” is that it’s Rachel saying and doing those rude things; with no awareness of Friends, it would just be one more pointless caricature of an aggressively sexy woman. Aniston and Colin Farrell, who sports a comb-over, are the funniest things in a plot that abandons early echoes of Stranger on a Train for random slapstick and features two stupid central characters where one would be more than enough, but it was a box-office hit, which may yet persuade her that she doesn’t have to channel Rachel all the time. She was back for Horrible Bosses 2, once again talking about penises and coming on like Carry On Dominatrix.
We’re the Millers was funnier than it should have been, with the shambolic quality of the comedy helping to disguise the schematic nature of a plot too timid to fully embrace its satiric potential. Jason Sudeikis (one of the stupid central characters from Horrible Bosses) plays a petty drug dealer who is obliged to smuggle a large quantity of marijuana over the border from Mexico, and assembles a bogus all-American family as cover. Aniston plays the stripper he persuades to pose as his wife, and she duly strips… all the way down to her bra and knickers. (Once again, what’s the point of spending all that time in the gym if you can’t show off your flat tummy?)
(I guess it’s only in po-faced dramas that Hollywood actresses dare to bare, but taking into account the schoolboyish glee with which screengrabs of the bra and knickers scene have been posted and reposted (it was hard to find pictures of her in any other scene from We’re the Millers) one can’t altogether blame them for keeping their undergarments on.)
Since We’re the Millers, Aniston has appeared in Life of Crime, adapted by Daniel Schechter (who also directed) from Elmore Leonard’s The Switch. It’s a prequel to Rum Punch, which was adapted by Quentin Tarantino as Jackie Brown. Aniston plays a housewife kidnapped by John Hawkes and Mos Def, as younger incarnations of the characters played by Samuel L. Jackson and Robert De Niro in Tarantino’s film. Needless to say, the kidnapping doesn’t go as planned.
She is quietly giving a cracker of a performance here – a masterclass in pursed lips and disappointment – as a character who, once again, has nothing whatsoever in common with Rachel Green. A film-maker with Tarantino’s confidence might have pounced on the rapport between her and Hawkes’s characters and built on it, but story and character development run out of steam, while the directing never really gets you rooting for her character the way you did for Pam Grier in Jackie Brown. The story peters out with a whimper rather than ends with a bang, though Isla Fisher is great as the amoral Melanie.
At the time of writing, Aniston is getting good reviews, and has been nominated for a SAG and Golden Globe awards, for her lead performance in Cake as a woman obsessed by the suicide of a fellow sufferer in her chronic pain support group. Trailer and stills suggest she has been comprehensively de-glammed for the role. It doesn’t open in Belgium till April, so I might add something about it then.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in August 2013. I have since rewritten most of it, and added several new paragraphs.