What is Paul Rudd’s Peak?

Last week my wife and I had planned to go see Paul Rudd’s new movie Our Idiot Brother. Instead we decided to stay in and watch one of the two dozen movies we have recorded on our DVR. Coincidentally we picked another Paul Rudd movie, Dinner for Schmuck’s, which made me recollect how interesting Rudd is to me.

Rudd arrived on most people’s radars in 1995 as Alicia Silverstone’s half brother in the high school comedy Clueless. He was funny and good looking enough that it would be easy to imagine him having a successful career, but Rudd seemed to somewhat disappear. He didn’t show up on my radar again until 2001′s Wet Hot American Summer. Although that film has somewhat of a cult following, it’s likely that his 18 episode run as Lisa Kudrow’s boyfriend/husband on Friends was his re-emergence into popular culture. Rudd was funny during his run on Friends and surely got peoples’ attention.

2004′s Anchorman was really Rudd’s rise into the mainstream though. Although I have my own feelings about the film, there is no questioning it’s place in the re-launching of the comedy genre behind Adam McKay, Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell. Speaking of Apataow, Rudd’s next two significant roles, in 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up were great. Rudd showed his ability to be both crazy and a “regular” dude in these two movies and was especially great in Knocked Up as Leslie Mann’s fantasy baseball playing husband.

Rudd went Apatow-free in 2008′s Role Models, which I was extraordinarily skeptical about, particularly because Sean William Scott is not high on my list. Role Models was hilarious though, and this is really when Rudd won me over. When he joined forces with Jason Segel for 2009′s I Love You, Man, I again felt a sense of overachievement, as a movie I was unsure about ended up being much funnier that anticipated. This element of surprise time and time again seems to be fueled by Rudd’s deadpan delivery.

Rudd is 42, which is hard to believe because he looks young, but not so hard to believe when you consider that Clueless was 16 years ago. He’s a good-looking guy and definitely funny. He can play a lot of different types of roles, smart, dumb, crazy, successful, confident, lovable loser, etc. He’s good looking enough to pull off a certain kind of romantic comedy as well. The real question I have is, what could his career been if Clueless had been more of a breakout role for him, or Apatow’s movies hit mainstream 12 years ago instead of 7.

What is Paul Rudd’s peak now, and what would it have been if he had broken out sooner? He still look’s young, so he has a lot of years ahead of him. But at the same time he could have potentially been this generation’s Tom Hanks. Goofy guy, very likable, eventually on to more dramatic things. Hanks did some silly movies in the ’80s, Turner and Hooch, Dragnet, Big, Bachelor Party and Money Pit to name a few. It really wasn’t until Philadelphia that he got serious. He then followed that with Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan. It’s really too bad IMDb doesn’t have a “most similar to” like Baseball Reference does because I wonder who Rudd would be most similar to?

Part of me thinks Rudd will be this generation’s Steve Martin. Not the stand-up Steve Martin, just the actor. Although Martin is a little more skewed towards physical humor, I see some similarities. Martin really didn’t start making movies until The Jerk in 1979, when he was 34 years old, the same age Rudd was when he did Anchorman. Martin’s signature grey hair has also given the impression that he hasn’t aged much over the last 20 years. Rudd’s baby face gives the same impression.

At 42, it’s hard to say if Rudd has made it big. He is the “star” of most of his recent movies, but none of them are blockbusters, and usually they look medicore and exceed expectations. Many of Martin’s movies drew people because of him and usually left people a little underwhelmed. Steve Martin never really did any dramatic movies and rode his name and early success through the latter part of his career.

I see Rudd on a similar trajectory. I find that people in their late 20s love this guy, probably just enough that he can plug along with above average comedies forever. It’s not meant to be a slight to him. I think he’s likable and funny, and am always intrigued when I see his name attached to a movie. I see movies like Role Models exceed expectations because of Rudd, and then see movies like Dinner of Schmuck’s that are terrible, and I wonder what we can expect next. I think hit his stride a little late to be the generational star that Hanks was, but I still think he has mountains of success ahead of him.