Charlize Theron Performs a Miracle in The Italian Job
I love The Italian Job. And I will defend The Italian Job. It’s an unbelievably fun heist movie with extremely likeable actors, fast cars, faster cuts, and a pitch-perfect villain performance just before Ed Norton realized he should probably stop playing villains if he wanted to avoid getting completely typecast for the rest of his career. It’s occasionally predictable and more-than-occasionally sleazy, and it makes you cringe at least a dozen times. But it’s still the perfect movie to make you smile and take your mind off whatever bullshit makes your life so much less cool than the lives of Charlie, Left Ear, Handsome Rob, Lyle, and Stella. Inevitably, though, The Italian Job is pretty thin on character. The handsome driver. The tech nerd. The quirky demolition man. The straight-man-with-a-plan organizer. And the "emotional" woman with the dead dad and an simmering crush on the leading man. Enter Charlize Theron. The men of The Italian Job deserve praise for bringing near-caricatures to life – we rewatch the movie for the way Mos Def (Yasiin Bey) says “I had. A bad. Experience,” and we love the crew despite their filth because Seth Green’s impersonation of Jason Statham is just charming enough to win us over. But none of them hold a candle to Theron’s ability to take a flat, cliché-ridden character and imbue her with nuance, liveliness, and honesty. The era of the capital M, capital S, Movie Star is slowly declining. Few names can put butts in seats all on their own, so we may forget the importance of elevating relatively thin, straightforward characters. But that’s what a movie star does – through a mix of charisma and genuine acting ability, they attract our eyes and our attention, and they get us to invest our hearts in a character that could otherwise lead to eye-rolls and aborted home viewings after 30 minutes. The world – and the Academy – may understand the depth of Charlize Theron’s talent in 2020, but six months before the release of 2003’s Monster, which would garner Theron her first Oscar nomination and win, it was a dumb-fun heist movie that should have tipped everyone off about her future. In The Italian Job, Theron takes two of the most common, painful clichés for women in all-male action movies – that of the “spunky, down-to-earth chick” who can keep up with the guys, and the “emotional girl” with a crush on the male lead but who the others think will slow them down with her feelings – and somehow weaves together a convincing portrait of a real woman.
One scene in particular should be shown to every group in the Drama Division of Juilliard on day one of orientation – and not just to see the reactions of self-professed thespians at being shown a clip that includes Mark Wahlberg, Jason Statham, and Seth Green. After joining the team that’s going after the man (Steve, played by Ed Norton) who killed her father, Stella is sent into Steve’s house as the pretend cable woman so she can obtain video blueprints of the home and the location of Steve’s safe. There are two ways to play this scene – one in which one character has to hide something from another character, but the audience knows what they’re hiding – and most people would overplay in one direction. It’s a common problem, especially in movies that don’t traffic in nuance. In the first, Stella’s true mission would manifest in obvious tics – fumbling with equipment because of nerves, a clear inability to come up with an excuse for looking for the safe. This way, the audience can feel the tension and risk that she’ll be caught, but usually, somehow, the other character won’t figure it out. In the second approach, Stella would be inconceivably calm and collected – this allows her to get away with her mission, but strains credulity that any person could be so perfect in real life. Theron forges a third path, immaculately finding ways to show the audience what it knows must be there – nerves, fear, hatred for the man who killed her father – without showing those things to Steve, despite the fact that he’s standing right in front of her. She conveys nerves with small smiles and glances to the ground, which Steve interprets as bashful humility in response to his flirtations. She stumbles lightly when Steve catches her looking in the closet with his safe, just enough to be realistic, but recovers by swiftly walking away from him as if it was a routine check for cable wires, giving her the opportunity to mask the fear on her face. And she uses small changes in the tempo of her breathing to let the audience know just how much disgust she feels with this man, while letting his delusions of grandeur lead him to believe she’s genuinely interested in going on a date with him. It is, in short, a master class. She relies on breathing once again, later to engage the audience in the climactic safe-cracking scene. Stella is put under the clock and forced to resort to the old-school safe-cracking tactics of her father – tactics she spent her career avoiding. In an otherwise mostly silent few minutes, Theron draws us to the edge of our seats with long, confident inhales, then creates a mixture of anxiety and flagging self-confidence with short, shaky exhales.
I could go on. Theron’s ability to shift immediately from nervous but confident con woman into vengeful, scared daughter when Steve grabs her arm at their dinner date saturates the scene with tension; her repeated playful spurning of Rob and Wrench’s advances have an extra blink-and-you-miss-it quality, a knowing self-awareness that makes it feel like she’s rebuffing the film’s casual misogyny more broadly; her understated, quiet “come on!” during the final mini cooper chase conveys more urgency than a loud, over-the-top scream; and she packs more catharsis into a final punch than I thought possible. These are all small things, small moments, small decisions. But they add up to a cocktail of acting talent and star quality that cannot be taught, and that brings that certain je ne sais quoi to a performer. Charlize Theron is one of our finest actors. When she garners top billing – like in Bombshell, for example – I’ll probably go see a movie I might otherwise pass on due to middling reviews. She’s had better roles, and she’s definitely had the opportunity to play better action-movie characters – but The Italian Job illustrates her unparalleled ability to transcend cliché, and that’s a talent worth celebrating all on its own. Plus, it’s an excuse to rewatch The Italian Job.