My appreciation of the career trajectories of Richard E Grant and Jude Law has been nigh on inversely proportional. One started out practically assaulting you with contemptible energy and then coasted on the good will that brought, not just from an adoring public fanbase but also impressionable media peers, for a fair while. The other also attracted superficially affirmative responses. His model-prettiness resulted in indiscriminate casting, and for a long while he didn’t seem to fully mesh with the pictures of which he was a part; he sat above them, sullen or blank.
In the early ‘90s Grant could do no wrong, even though he frequently did. My first conscious experience of him came a few years earlier, via his unlikely heroic time traveller in Warlock. Withnail & I made him an icon to a generation of students (and beyond, of course). Withnail has only been surpassed in status by the Dude, such is the glamour of shameless but witty debauchery. I eagerly sought out anything Grant appeared in. Sometimes this paid off (How to Get Ahead in Advertising) at others I was left indifferent (L.A. Story, Mountains on the Moon). And then came Hudson Hawk, the last word in over-the-top Richard E. Grant performances (“What can I say? I’m the villain!”) Sublime as that box office disaster is, it was the beginning of the end for Richard as a rising star. With Nails, his entertaining journal of Hollywood flirtations and his La-La Land pals (Steve Martin, Winona Ryder – who loved Withnail, quite understandably), is perhaps the only real fruit borne of that sojourn. He can say he worked with Coppola and Scorsese, but only his (first) film with Altman leaves much impression. Over the rest of the decade there was the odd pleasant surprise (the Oscar-winning short Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Keep the Aspidistra Flying), but he finished up the decade as a really not that much fun-at-all TV The Scarlet Pimpernel and doing a Comic Relief bit as Doctor Who (a role I foolishly once thought he’d be perfect for). I gave up on him. And I haven’t seen much since that has persuadaded me otherwise. He made a bizarrely appropriate Michael Heseltine in his two minutes of screen time in The Iron Lady, but his recent villainous turn in nu-Doctor Who just cemented the realisation that hardly anyone has cast him to his strengths in 20 years. Now though, miraculously, Grant seems to be back as the Grant we know and love in our mind’s eye. The bitter, splenetically funny Grant. Bilious and given to undisguised, superior disdain. It may be a false dawn, of course; how many chances has Bruce Willis had to return to the witty guy he once was, but never failed to disappoint? But as Dom Hemingway’s best mate, Dickie, Grant at least has the chance to be a flash in the pan.
Law has managed a near reverse of his contemporary Ewan McGregor. McGregor was getting the pick of the roles, but he was unable to retain the iconic status that came with his first two Danny Boyle collaborations. There was the odd Law film that stood out (Gigolo Joe in A.I., Brad in I Heart Huckabees) but his feted appearances for Anthony Minghella (and later not so) seemed too consciously self-important all-round, and his “classic” leading man roles (eXistenZ, Enemy at the Gates) or attempts to go dark (Road to Perdition) didn’t quite fly. I wouldn’t go as far as calling him a terrible cunt, but he didn’t impress. In the last few years though, he’s suddenly become an actor I look forward to seeing. Maybe those ropey Michael Caine remakes were a necessary enema. Maybe, now he’s receding a bit, and his boyishness is becoming a bit more lined, he’s being seen for roles he wouldn’t have before. But he also seems to be more relaxed. His Dr Watson is a perfect foil for Robert Downey Jr. His roles for Steven Soderbergh have played on perceptions of him, from making him rather down at heel and nerdy to stroking intellectual rather than physical vanity. He was by far the best thing it the middling Anna Karenina. And now, he seems to have fully embraced his potential for seedy disarray; his titular role in Dom Hemingway looks like a career high.
I could be wrong, of course. And the trailer for Don Hemingway is full of promise but not quite there. Advance word is pretty damn positive, however. And if it’s even just nearly as good as Richard Shephard’s The Matador, which did marvellous things for Pierce Brosnan as an anti-Bond hit man, it should be a treat. Grant has said “If Withnail had gone into crime, this is where he might have ended up”. That’s all the enticement I need.