The Joyous Cinema of Justin Timberlake

By  · Published on November 2nd, 2016

Like many performers before him, he’s finally found his niche

Justin Timberlake has existed on the edges of cinema for a while now. Guest stints and a supporting role in The Social Network opened his career up to leading a few films that just never quite clicked. Runner Runner couldn’t quite place him and Friends With Benefits had trouble matching its writing with J.T.’s humor. Until now, most of his movies couldn’t find what made him seem so full of life and leverage it.

Timberlake is a star through atypical channels, which we’ve known since his groundbreaking Saturday Night Live appearance in the digital short “Dick in a Box” – an avenue that found his humor in punny asides and self-satirization. Eventually, this collaboration and friendliness with The Lonely Island led to a cameo in this year’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, which, along with a new movie based on old toys (Trolls) and a concert documentary (Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids), have encapsulated Timberlake’s onscreen joy in 2016.

There’s simply nothing mean-spirited about Timberlake’s persona, which allows his killjoy character in Trolls a satisfying moment of growth when he finally breaks down into song to perk up a mopey Anna Kendrick (another performer that excels at exuberance). This same effervescence is shared by Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids as it gleefully joins Magic Mike XXL in a new genre I’m calling Job Fulfillment Porn. The film, excellently staged by Stop Making Sense director Jonathan Demme, introduces us to the man and his band leading into the final performance of their 2015 20/20 Experience World Tour at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

With the exhaustive, leave-it-all-on-the-stage power of a closing night, the concert brings us into Timberlake’s world while finding the perfect way to capture that mix between performer and movie star that Timberlake has aimed for since growing up thinking about Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Entertainers, that broad term that seems a little faded in 2016, do it all.

Demme shows us, during the end credit sequence, the building process for the elaborate stage. Timberlake stops by in a hoodie to oversee everything and bows down to the stage crew, the same thing he did to the crowd. Before the show, he gathers his band and dancers in a pre-game huddle as he, in true Friday Night Lights tradition, acts as a simultaneous team captain and spiritual guide. He pats the security guards on the shoulder as he walks into rooms, remembers everyone’s name, and passes his excitement like a virus.

When the show begins, his voice is pure pop. High and sweet, it lifts. You couldn’t imagine him singing while crouching down, let alone sitting. His dancing is exuberant, controlled, and has the expert ease gained from a year of practice. The smile doesn’t leave his face, eating up every second of the crowd even during the most sultry songs.

When he mops his face clean of sweat halfway through the concert, we breathe a sigh of relief – he’s human after all. When the closing song hits its final refrain, Timberlake looks out onto his audience like President Obama onto his final inauguration crowd.

Behind all this is a kindness and humbleness associated with Timberlake since before SNL, when he was the youngest, freshest-faced, most innocent member of NSYNC. Moving on from his boy band days, Timberlake worked to construct a sex symbol image with just enough intimacy to seem approachable. He’s too gracious to be anything but boyfriend material, opposed to the Adonis-like unattainability of Brad Pitt or a Hemsworth.

Timberlake is a softer, more goodie-goodie sort of star in the world of crossover celebrity. His appearance in the very first episode of Punk’d had him bursting into tears when the (fake) FBI threatened to seize not just his valuables, but his dog. He loves his pet – that’s endearing. He also thought that the FBI would take his dog to pay back taxes – that’s almost equally adorable.

His recent comments that working with auteurs like David Fincher, the Coen brothers, Demme, and now Woody Allen has led to him drinking shows anxiety which grows from modesty. His isn’t the encompassing leading-man charisma, but something closer to Channing Tatum’s soft-centered lightheartedness. Tatum, who also started as a dancer, is a similarly throwback talent reclaiming the catchall “entertainer.”

Hollywood also had a learning period during which it struggled to use Tatum’s strengths.

Undercutting this raw ability is part of thier charm. This is why Tatum excels at playing dumb in comedies and why Timberlake’s stint as a talented but ignored chef in Popstar is so hilarious – we know them, which means we can make that mental leap when they’re cleverly cast.

Instead of having Timberlake be another heaping helping of sunshine and rainbows on top of the already saccharine weirdness of Trolls, the film smartly casts him dour. There’s something about hearing him innocuously grumble after knowing him as a public figure for so long that is both satisfying and engaging. It’s more self-parody, especially when we find that this drab Troll was hiding a hit single beneath his colorless exterior, but one that ends back where we started. It’s another facet in discovering his core.

In the same piece where Timberlake opens up about his anxiety, Pharrell explains the idea of vulnerability in pop music:

“There’s a formulaic sort of vulnerability, like, ‘Baby, I can’t sleep without you …’ and that’s not really it. But if you’re able to really screenshot your own vulnerability, and frame it properly, and color-correct it, then it becomes something that every human can relate to. And I think Justin is in the place where he’s mastering that right now.”

Whether as a Troll, a chef, or a concert demigod, Timberlake seems to be mastering this same sensation through his cinematic positivity.

Related Topics: ,

Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).