The Five Absolutely Essential Jack Black Movies
Welcome to “Five Absolutely Essentials,” an overview of the greatest comedians’ most memorable moments. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily their “best” movies — rather, these are the five films that best represent different aspects of their talent, their ambition, their persona and the artistic risks they’ve taken along the way. If you’re looking for a sense of a comic in all his or her complexity, here’s where to start.
When you close your eyes and picture Jack Black, what do you see? The big, happy smile? Those animated eyes? Maybe you hear that exuberant voice, sometimes working an affected accent. Few stars so profoundly exude such oversized-teddy-bear energy as the 53-year-old comedian and musician. As part of his satiric heavy-metal band Tenacious D, Black always rocks out with an eyebrow arched, and likewise there’s often a layer of sarcasm to his on-screen persona, juxtaposing sincerity with snarkiness. But there’s a reason he’s done a ton of kids’ movies: He’s never lost his youthful enthusiasm about what sheer fun it is to make things, and I suspect children see themselves in his playful silliness. He makes being creative look like a total blast.
Winnowing Black’s essence down to five films means highlighting some of his biggest hits, but I also think you have to include a few of his projects that found him moving away from his strengths, stretching himself by signing up for rom-coms or dark character portraits. Nobody’s surprised when he shows up in something like The Muppets or Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, but to understand the range of an actor who spent part of his early years doing legitimate theater, you also have to take into account the less-mainstream films he’s tackled. A teddy bear he may be — or, to cite his most popular role, a panda — but he’s just as interesting playing a smiling murderer.
High Fidelity (2000)
Black had been working steadily before this Stephen Frears adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel. He was busy on stage as an actor, not to mention as a musician, and he was starting to land bit roles in film and television. But when he was cast as Barry Judd, the gonzo, biting record-store employee who works for the lovelorn Rob Gordon (co-writer John Cusack), audiences got their first real glimpse of what Jack Black, Movie Star would look like. Utilizing both his cutting wit and his musical chops, Black made Barry the sort of guy who’s a lot… but also a lot of fun.
Fans of High Fidelity remember how Barry viciously rips into bands he doesn’t think are cool enough — the man is the epitome of the music snob — but also how energetically he launches into “Let’s Get It On” near the film’s end. You feel like you’re watching a star being born, although Black initially turned down the part, fearful that he couldn’t make the jump to bigger roles. But he rose to the challenge.
“People still ask me about High Fidelity because, in a lot of ways, it was my best performance and people love that movie,” Black said in 2020. “And I think it might have been the only time that I went all of the fucking way. And it happens a lot. When you first come out of the gate, you crank it out of the park … really out of a lot of adrenaline.”
School of Rock (2003)
Thanks to High Fidelity, Black’s profile quickly grew, finding himself cast as the wild-card supporting character in Hollywood comedies. But it wasn’t until School of Rock that he demonstrated his ability to be a leading man — albeit in a very appealing family film where he got to be an overgrown kid.
As Dewey, an immature guitarist booted from his band and low on dough who takes a job as a substitute music teacher, Black was paired with a bunch of young actors, which brought out his warm, playful side — without stripping away his edge and wit. And like with High Fidelity, School of Rock capitalized on Black’s musical talents, which lent an authenticity to his scenes as he helps inspire his students to be confident rockers. The film was a hit, setting the stage for a series of live-action family movies where he brought a boyish charm to kid-friendly material. But none of those subsequent films quite captured the special magic of School of Rock.
“My best memories are just that group of kids, and how funny and great they were,” Black recalled in 2022 about School of Rock. “It’s definitely the highlight of my career, I can say that. Honestly.”
The Holiday (2006)
In the mid-2000s, Black was part of gaudy blockbusters (King Kong) and supremely silly comedies (Nacho Libre, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny). And then there was The Holiday: a Nancy Meyers rom-com that Black did, in part, because his mother was such a fan of the writer-director.
“She always wants me to do something in her neck of the woods,” Black said later of his mom, “and although she supports me with (Tenacious D) and with the crazy crap that I do, it’s not really her cup of tea.” But Black was aware The Holiday, which stars him as a composer who falls for Kate Winslet’s columnist, was a change of pace for him. “Nancy is a fan, and she thought I had the goods to pull it (off),” he said. “She believed in me and in my adorableness. My adorable side that is yet to be excavated.”
To be sure, Black isn’t entirely comfortable in the role of romantic lead. Very obviously meant to be a contrast to the suave, dashing Jude Law, who is Cameron Diaz’s love interest in the same film, Black exhibits the same childlike giddiness that made him a star. He and Winslet have a sweet, dorky rapport, and it makes you wonder if Black would have grown more confident in parts like this if he’d focused his energies exclusively on rom-coms. For the most part, though, he’s stuck with silly.
Kung Fu Panda (2008)
With his boisterous personality and exaggerated facial expressions, Black is like a real-life cartoon character. So it made perfect sense that DreamWorks would approach him to voice Po, a sensitive panda who longs to be a martial-arts master — even though he’s far from athletic. But what Po does have is the same thing Black does — an indomitable spirit — and Kung Fu Panda is powered by the actor’s emotional effusiveness. Few actors could have conveyed Po’s yearning and vulnerability as well.
The 2008 movie was a smash, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film. There have been two sequels, with Kung Fu Panda 4 set for a 2024 release. But Black wasn’t so sure, initially, if he wanted to board the franchise, admitting that he was “hesitant because, you know, I had this rock band. I kind of had a cool rock ‘n’ roll edge to me. And I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to go into, like, the kids’ world. I think I might want to go a little harder, a little darker with my career.’ … But, then (DreamWorks head Jeffrey Katzenberg) had the animators do a little sample of Po animated and with my voice from High Fidelity. And I was like, ‘Oh, so that’s what — you don’t want me to, like, baby it up. You don’t want me to Romper Room it.’ … That made it very easy.”
When Black signed on to star in School of Rock, a seemingly odd choice was floated for who should direct the film: Richard Linklater. As Black explained in 2017, “(A)t first, (screenwriter Mike White and I) were like, ‘That doesn’t make sense because this is a “feel-good hit of the summer” type of thing,’ and we both thought of Richard Linklater as more of an arthouse type of guy. You know, you think Slacker.” But Linklater proved he could do smart mainstream fare with School of Rock — and then later invited Black to get weird with him on a later project.
Truth is, Black has been part of plenty of arthouse films, such as Margot at the Wedding and Be Kind Rewind. (Hell, his first movie was a small role in buddy Tim Robbins’ Bob Roberts.) But he’s never done anything as nervy as Bernie, a dark comedy, based on a true story, about a quirky Texas mortician named Bernie Tiede who killed his rich, much-older companion, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Rather than the rambunctious antics that have defined his career, Black was more restrained here — which is not to say he wasn’t also very funny. But by playing an inscrutable man who’s charming but also slightly menacing, the actor tapped into something insidious underneath his playful manchild persona, never showing any sign of strain.
“(I)t wasn’t nerve-wracking. It felt comfortable,” he said about the switch to a more toned-down performance. “I was just focusing on the script, and whatever felt right at the time. It’s a little easier when you’ve got an accent and a persona to build around. It was freeing.”
In a pinch, Black will go for outlandish, adrenalized characters. But Bernie will always serve as a reminder that he can do something a little subtler and more sinister as well. Honestly, it’s a mode he should try more often.