Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores Hugh Grant’s delightfully villainous work in Paddington 2.
It goes without saying, but the greatest movies of all time rarely come out in January. The industry literally refers to January as one of several “dump months” in the calendar year. If November and December have an earmark for high-profile movies striving for awards recognition, January is like an island of misfit toys. Just, you know, for movies, the major studios don’t have the most critical or commercial faith in. This alone is why I always find it hard to come up with titles for the January edition of The Great Performances. There are just not always a lot of films to choose from.
Despite the slim pickings, January still has incredible film anniversaries to celebrate. Some of the best genre movies of all time saw a January release, from The Silence of the Lambs and Waiting for Guffman to Tremors. In January 2015, arguably the most beloved modern family film came out, Paddington. And what happened three Januarys later? The sequel came out, Paddington 2, and with it, one of the best performances by everyone’s favorite floppy-haired 90s heartthrob, Hugh Grant.
But why do we find Hugh Grant’s dastardly portrayal of cheeky villain Phoenix Buchanan so undeniably entertaining?
Paul King’s adaptation of Michael Bond’s original stories follows Paddington Bear (voiced by Ben Wishaw) as he ingratiates himself into his adopted family, the Browns. In Bond’s original books, we watch Paddington primarily get into zany hijinks learning the ins and outs of the human world, like how to properly take a bath or use an escalator. The misunderstandings that Paddington finds himself in are almost always self-inflicted. They come out of his innocent curiosity and naivety about his new surroundings. But Bond’s books stop short of giving him a central antagonist. The closest the stories get to a villain is the crusty Mr. Curry. Though he never puts our bear hero in any real danger.
That all changed with the films. In the first Paddington, the bear has to contend with a murderous taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) who wants to shoot, stuff, and mount him in an act of familial revenge. It’s an engaging dilemma that injects a sense of danger into an otherwise straightforward family film. Though it did beg the question in at least one major UK newspaper, “Did Paddington Really Need a Murderer?”
Whether you agree with The Guardian’s question or not, the insidiousness of Paddington’s antagonist was dialed back for the sequel. Now Paddington wasn’t running for his life, but rather trying to clear his good name after being falsely accused of robbery. The real thief is Phoenix Buchanan (Grant), a narcissistic actor who’s fallen off the ladder of success. He wants nothing more than to climb back to the top, no matter who he has to step on to get there.
Up to this point in his career, Grant was still best known for his rom-com roles. In films like Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, he radiates an irresistible charm and wit that was completely enrapturing. His spate of 90s movies gave audiences a mental image of Grant as an archetype of charming personability. This mental image is why Grant’s enchanting turn as Buchanan immediately grabs our attention.
However, Grant subverts that charm through Buchanan’s readily apparent egotistical nature. As he gives a welcome speech for the opening of a fair, he can’t help but speak incredibly highly of himself, “When Madame Kozlova created this thing all those years ago, she most certainly was not thinking of people like me. Whatever I am – VIP, celebrity. I hate all that stuff. No, no – West End Legend, that’s another one. No, no, she was thinking you guys, huh? The ordinary people.” Buchanan’s overt self-indulgence gives us an early inkling of his villainy. But due to Grant’s inherent magnetism, we don’t really care that he’s Paddington’s ultimate foil. We just want to see more of Grant’s patented brand of charisma.
Even once we see the true nature of Buchanan’s acute madness, Grant never lets his character become stereotypically evil. Instead, he fills Buchanan with a silly sense of mania. This is best represented as Buchanan speaks to himself in a mirror in his attic, with Grant giving voice to a collection of neatly-preserved costumes. One second, he dons the accent of famous French detective Hercule Poirot. Next, he gleefully slips into the voice of Hamlet and Ebenezer Scrooge, all characters we imagine Buchanan played in the heyday of his career.
Grant is impressive, seamlessly alternating between this assortment of characters. But the bit is ultimately engaging because he stretches the stereotype of egotistical actors clinging to memories of better days to its hammiest extreme. Like so many actors, Grant has likely waxed nostalgic on his own past roles throughout his life. But he takes those true, earnest emotions and transforms them into a performance that’s more farcical than realistic. People think actors are vain and narcissistic, and Grant just takes that assumption and cranks it to eleven.
The vanity of Grant’s Buchanan explodes in his final scene. After his theft has been uncovered, Buchanan is sent to prison in Paddington’s place. Rather than letting his new surroundings put a damper on his dreams, he uses it as an avenue to return to the stage. In an homage to Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Buchanan puts on a Busby Berkeley-esque dance routine in the jailhouse. The number is a pure unbridled joy that encapsulates so much of what we love about Grant’s performance. It’s not his hammy theatricality that makes Buchanan a crowd-pleasing character. It’s Grant’s unwavering commitment to the bit that makes his work so infectious down to the final line.
“Thank you, my darlings, thank you.” Phoenix crows as the number concludes. “It seems I didn’t need the West End at all. Just…a captive audience. Honestly, what am I like? Guards, lock me up! Oh wait, you have!” As the crowd groans with laughter, Buchanan flashes a sheepish grin to the throng of prisoners. It’s as he’s saying, “Sure, it’s a cheap joke, but that’s what you get from a charming rapscallion like myself.” In a way, this final beat is like a metaphor for the whole of Grant’s performance. The jokes may be corny as hell, but it’s in the committed way Grant plays the humor that makes them so damn funny.
Cinephiles love the Paddington films for good reasons. They’re heartwarming, smart, and filled with inspired performances, from Ben Wishaw and Sally Hawkins to Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson’s performance, in particular as brawny cook Knuckles McGinty almost steals the show from Grant’s Buchanan in Paddington 2. But only barely, as it’s difficult to deny just how much fun it is to watch Grant play a deliciously charming character like Buchanan. He commands our attention by weaponizing the charisma he’s used to steal hearts for decades.
We may have fallen in love with Grant as an affable lead in some of the greatest romantic comedies of the last forty years. But it’s performances like Phoenix Buchanan that prove his charm has lost none of its bite all these years later.
Related Topics: Hugh Grant, Paddington 2, The Great Performances