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10 One-Man Show Movies

Features
by Jessica Kiang
April 22, 2014 2:04 PM
10 Comments
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If there's any justice in the world, many of you will spend 85 minutes of your upcoming weekend in a car with Tom Hardy. "Locke," the formally rigorous, real-time Steven-Knight-directed film opens on Friday, and it's terrific: a taut drama that unfolds like a thriller despite being a small, detail-specific, domestic story; and an absorbing Richard Burton-inflected showcase for its sole onscreen star. Hardy, aided by the offscreen voices of Olivia Colman, Andrew Scott and others via his handsfree phone ( the way Knight organized the calls, so that they came to Hardy "live" is fascinating) is just brilliant, crucially underplaying most of the time, as though aware that with only him onscreen (also immobile), the tiniest tic is magnified exponentially. It's the kind of tour de force that highlights by contrast just where so many other single-actor films go wrong.

Not that there actually are that many, no doubt because the potential pitfalls of this approach are legion. Not only does it require an actor of immense versatility and charisma, the format is extraordinarily unforgiving on the script too—with most single-actor movies qualifying as single-location films as well, there is literally nowhere for the story to hide, no flashy distractions if things aren't running smoothly, and nothing else for our attention to grab onto if an awkward turn or a lapse in logic breaks our suspended disbelief. So, allowing ourselves a tiny bit of wiggle room as regards occasional cameos from other performers, bookends or voice-only actors, we looked at ten films that attempt more or less the same trick, and asked of them the same questions that "Locke" answers, for the most part, so well.

"Buried" (2010)
Director: Rodrigo Cortes
Who's Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Perpetual almost-megastar Ryan Reynolds plays Paul Conroy, an American civilian contractor in Iraq who is buried alive in a wooden box when his convoy comes under attack by insurgents. 
Who Does He Interact With, Then? Via a telephone that his kidnapper/tormentor has placed in the coffin with him, Conroy talks to his captor, to the police, the state department, to the man in charge of his rescue mission, to the head of personnel at his firm and finally, eventually, to his wife whom he's been trying to contact for hours. 
Does It Jump The Shark? Yes, but arguably less often than you'd think given this is a one-man show set in a 7x3-foot box underground that plays as a thriller and yet never leaves that location. For us, the snake-in-the-pants bit is a bridge too far, and the finger thing is kind of pointless, though the major misstep happens just before the end SPOILER ALERT where we see Conroy's fantasy of rescue happening, which actually subtracts a fair amount of tension from the otherwise uncompromising ending—we already know he isn't going to be saved, because we've seen him get saved and it's all in his mind. SPOILER ENDS
Is It Any Good? Mileage varies greatly on this one, and some Playlisters are a lot cooler on it, but actually this film works a whole lot better than it has any reasonable right to. Partly it's that Reynolds is an engaging and sympathetic lead, playing an everyman character no smarter or more resourceful than we might be in that situation. But kudos also go to Cortes who works the tiny location for all it's worth, even if some of the camera work feels like it too obviously cheats the confinement. In fact the only issue this writer really has with the film is that in wanting so much to be a fast-paced thriller, some credibility and atmosphere is sacrificed as the film finds more and more things for Conroy to do and react to, arguably leaving not enough time for the contemplation of the real horror of his situation: alone, cramped, under the ground and facing death only after an interminable stretch of consciousness.

"The Telephone" (1988)
Director: Rip Torn (yes, that Rip Torn, his sole directorial feature outside a televised Chekhov play; from a script co-written by singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson and "Easy Rider" writer Terry Southern—there is nothing not weird about this one).
Who's Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Whoopi Goldberg gives the, um, tour de force (?) here, as a struggling actress called, um again, Vashti Blue, spending a night alone in her small apartment.
Who Does She Interact With, Then? Oh boy. Her goldfish and her owl form an audience of sorts for a series of "performances" but also an irate next-door neighbor who keeps shouting complaints about the noise through the wall; briefly with Elliot Gould who plays a sleazy agent who shows up with his date (Amy Wright); briefly again with John Heard as a telephone company guy; and with various people on the telephone.
Does It Jump The Shark? Does it ever. Several times and with a triple-lutz finish. The pointless and credulity-straining cameo from Gould is a prime example of trying to shoehorn in some character for Goldberg to play off, but he and his date make so little sense as humans (and deliver such odd OTT performances) that it doesn't fit at all, except maybe within the odd OTT world Goldberg has been inhabiting till then. But the coup de grace has to be the ending SPOILER ALERT when we discover that all the prank calls and best-friend confessionals have been made into a disconnected telephone. And she kills a guy. SPOILER ENDS
Is It Any Good? No. It is strangely car-crash-esque in its rubberneck appeal though, as Goldberg cycles through nonsensical skits and accents (British, Indian, Deep South, Japanese, German, Irish—that one's particularly dire—and even one we think is a John Wayne drawl when she emerges from the can with her pants down). It was obviously designed to be a showcase for Goldberg's range, but instead it's just a series of postures and pouts, before an ending that a late bid for Serious Drama and Mental Health Issues makes all the more risible. Still, gripping, in a how-not-to-do-it way.

"Cast Away" (2000)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Who's Giving The Solo Turn And Why? Tom Hanks plays FedEx employee Chuck Noland who gets stranded alone on an uninhabited island after his plane goes down.
Who Does He Interact With, Then? Aside from the beginning and end of the film which take place in civilization, largely with a volleyball called Wilson, on which a bloody handprint becomes a face and with which he forms a surprisingly touching relationship to stave off the tremendous loneliness of his situation. 
Does It Jump The Shark? Actually, where so many single-actor films have to stretch to keep us interested, "Cast Away" largely avoids that minefield, in great part by having the action of the film take place over the course of four years, which would easily be packed with enough incident as Chuck learns how to fish, make fire, learns about his surroundings and alternately despairs and dreams of rescue or escape. If anything, it's the quasi-mystical coincidence of the very end that might strain credulity, but by that stage we're happy to go wherever Chuck does. North, in this case.
Is It Any Good? While not as strict in form as some of the others on this list, and arguably split into different films when Chuck is on or off the island, "Cast Away" deserves its spot for just how well it achieves the main section of the story. Tom Hanks' everyman appeal has seldom been better used and his evolution from schlubby, clock-watching FedEx company mouthpiece, to lean, wild-haired, spear-chucking island man is totally believable. Hanks has never been better and teamed with Zemeckis' surefooted storytelling, delivers a sine qua non survival story and an extraordinarily entertaining and hopeful movie to boot. 

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10 Comments

  • hattis Stalman | May 1, 2014 1:39 PMReply

    2103's Scenic Route with Josh Duhamel!!! Amazing film

  • Kurskij | April 27, 2014 4:00 PMReply

    I know, it's highly (and I do mean Highly) debatable, but I would add Solaris on this list (both of them - Tarkovsky and Soderberg) since Cast Away is present.

  • Ira | April 27, 2014 11:15 AMReply

    It is actually impossible for a movie, without audience interaction, or having lasted on air for almost 10 years to "jump the shark." No one knows what this term means anymore.

  • Atul | April 23, 2014 1:46 PMReply

    a 1964 indian film 'Yaadein'...featured a single character:
    The film is soliloquy of a man who comes home to find that his wife and son are not at home, he assumes that they have left him and reminiscences his life with them, and scared of his life without them, he regrets his past indiscretions.

  • diskfaktory | April 22, 2014 7:03 PMReply

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  • Donella | April 22, 2014 6:37 PMReply

    I like Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number.

    Soooo chilly.

  • wcmartell | April 22, 2014 6:32 PMReply

    Come on! BRAKE is a hundred times better than BURIED.

  • NewYorker | April 22, 2014 3:28 PMReply

    or one woman, cause you could add sandra bullock in gravity on the list.

  • TimParker | April 22, 2014 4:07 PM

    I would guess Gravity is not included because George Clooney's character is involved in a bulk of the movie. I know there are ones on the list where there are more than just the one character but in the other cases (Telephone with Whoopi Goldberg, for example), those other characters are not on screen for nearly as long.

  • Christopher | April 22, 2014 3:05 PMReply

    There is a B-movie called "Brake" that's airing occasionally on showtime right now that I expected to see on this list... It's certainly jumps that shark, but it held my attention for it's duration. Worth a consideration if only for a feature like this. Interesting article, though.

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