Total Recall

Definitive Jack Black Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we look at ten films that helped define the Goosebumps star's career.

by | October 14, 2015 | Comments

Jack Black returns to theaters this weekend as kidlit legend R.L. Stine in Goosebumps, and in anticipation of his first foray into family-friendly comedy-horror, we decided to take a loving look back at some of his many memorable film and television roles. Whether you’re a longtime fan or just looking to get acquainted, there’s something here for everyone’s queue, so let’s get started — it’s time for Total Recall!

High Fidelity (2000) 91%


They’ve always been popular, but book-to-film adaptations are always an iffy proposition, too; no matter how successful they might be with movie audiences, film versions of beloved books often can’t help but suffer in comparison to their invariably more fleshed-out counterparts. Still, every once in awhile, an adaptation works so well that almost no one complains about the changes that were made — and 2000’s High Fidelity, about the emotional travails of a music-obsessed sensitive soul with a checkered romantic past (John Cusack), is a perfect example. Aside from catering gracefully to its leading man’s cinematic strengths, the script (which Cusack co-wrote) made plenty of room for scene-stealing supporting players, led by Black as a cranky record store employee whose stereotypical snobbery is leavened by the hyperactive, wide-eyed overconfidence Black would soon be asked to bring to bear on a long list of comedies. He’d been in plenty of TV shows and films prior to this, but after High Fidelity, Jack Black was finally on his way to becoming a star — and an unforgettable ingredient in a movie that the A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin lauded as “A film pragmatic enough to concede that almost every relationship is doomed, but romantic enough to realize that it’s worth it to carry on in spite of that fact … one of the smartest and funniest romantic comedies of the past few years.”

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Shallow Hal (2001) 50%


A Farrelly brothers movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit? Filmgoers definitely could have been forgiven for assuming Shallow Hal would be a repository for the writer-directors’ grossest and most insensitive gags, but this 2001 comedy — about an appearance-obsessed cretin (Black) who’s hypnotized into seeing only inner beauty after a chance encounter with self-help guru Tony Robbins — is actually rather sweet, and with a talented cast that also included Jason Alexander, it even managed to add a new spin or two to cinema’s long obsession with the battle between the sexes. “A big part of what makes the movie successful is the combination of Black and Paltrow,” wrote Aisle Seat’s Mike McGranahan. “He gives the movie its humor, while she gives it some heart.”

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School of Rock (2003) 91%


Jack Black has starred in a number of fine films over the course of his career, but no matter how long he continues making movies, it’s unlikely a project will ever fit his unique combination of talents as snugly as School of Rock. Inspired by a series of recordings culled from a Canadian elementary school project during the 1970s, screenwriter Mike White concocted the story of Dewey Finn (Black), a singer and guitarist whose delusions of grandeur get him kicked out of his band — thus beginning a chain of events that soon sees him jump-starting a local school’s music program while impersonating a substitute teacher. A fat box-office hit whose tangy blend of comedy, drama, and rock ‘n’ roll turned it into a consistent favorite that’s gone on to inspire a stage musical and TV adaptation (as well as persistent rumors of a sequel), it is also — as Desson Thomson wrote for the Washington Post — “A movie for almost everyone, from boomer parents (who remember their teens and twenties) to their teenage kids (who can’t wait to get started with same).”

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Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (2006) 52%


Years before he reached his cinematic breakthrough, Black caught the eye of discerning HBO subscribers through Tenacious D, a series based around the fake musical exploits of the real-life “mock rock” duo he’d co-founded with fellow actor-musician Kyle Gass. The pair filmed a trio of episodes with Mr. Show’s David Cross and Bob Odenkirk, and although the first episode didn’t set the world on fire when it aired in 1997 — HBO neglected to broadcast the other two until 2000 — Tenacious D’s act contributed to the steadily growing cult around the “band’s” brash frontman, and when they finally got around to releasing their debut LP in 2001, it cracked the Top 40 and paved the way for their big-screen debut, 2003’s Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, co-starring Ronnie James Dio as himself and Dave Grohl as Satan. “Black thrives in these grubby environs,” argued the Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris. “His full-throttle bodily chaos makes more sense in movies done on the cheap than in blockbusters and polished comedies.”

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King Kong (2005) 84%


Black’s obviously quite adept at getting laughs, but his gift for playing creeps also lends itself to drama — as director Peter Jackson obviously recognized while casting his big-budget remake of King Kong, tapping Black to play Carl Denham, the financially tenuous (and morally bankrupt) filmmaker whose quest for a hit sets in motion the chain of events that brings a certain giant gorilla to New York and unleashes a hail of CG-assisted destruction. The original Kong remains a towering classic, and Jackson’s version was destined to remain in its shadow long before cameras rolled, but it still acquitted itself fairly admirably; in fact, as far as some critics were concerned, it might even deserve to be considered a classic in its own right. “Monstrous. Monumental. Magnificent,” wrote an impressed Tom Long for the Detroit News. “Use any term you want, there’s no denying the power, genius and spectacle of King Kong, which is certainly the biggest movie of the year and possibly the biggest movie ever made.”

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Margot at the Wedding (2007) 52%


Making a movie about sisters whose tortured relationship is thrown into stark relief by one sister’s impending nuptials to a schlubby layabout? You could definitely do worse than casting Jack Black as the schlub in question, as writer-director Noah Baumbach correctly identified when assembling the stars of his 2007 dramedy Margot at the Wedding. Unfolding over a fraught weekend in Long Island, during which Margot (Nicole Kidman) ends up sharing uncomfortably close quarters with her sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Pauline’s underachieving fiancé (Black), Margot might have been merely a comedy of manners in other hands — but as Baumbach fans know, there’s no sense merely tickling the funny bone when you can go for the jugular while you’re at it. Saying it “counts as a bracing, even disturbing experience,” the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias observed, “Baumbach doesn’t seem to care whether people like his characters; he merely wants them to be seen for who they are, warts and all.”

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Be Kind Rewind (2008) 65%


For film fans of a certain age, the phrase “be kind rewind” will forever conjure memories of the stickers affixed to VHS rentals begging customers not to return their tapes without rewinding them first — but by 2008, VHS had been all but consigned to the format graveyard, making Be Kind Rewind the perfect title for a movie about a hapless video store clerk (Yasiin Bey) whose knuckleheaded friend (Black) accidentally erases every single tape in stock right after the owner (Danny Glover) leaves town. Forced to act fast, the duo set about remaking (“swedeing”) movies on the fly, inadvertently sparking a neighborhood craze for their unintentionally hilarious low-budget attempts to recreate films like Ghostbusters and Rush Hour 2 — and single-handedly reviving the financial fortunes of the store just as it’s set to meet the wrecking ball at the hand of a heartless building owner intent on gentrifying his property. Be Kind Rewind might look like a goofy comedy on the surface, but writer-director Michel Gondry had much more in mind; as Richard Corliss pointed out for TIME, the movie “declares that the riches of cinema history touch each of us personally. Films become so deep a part of us that we own them, that our memories of them, whether faithful or fanciful, become their meanings.”

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The Kung Fu Panda Franchise


The humor potential inherent in casting a husky funnyman as an unlikely martial arts enthusiast is as obvious as it is deceptively tricky to unlock — witness Chris Farley in Beverly Hills Ninja — so DreamWorks Animation casting Jack Black to voice a rotund panda who becomes a kung fu master might have seemed a little on the nose when Kung Fu Panda was announced. Sometimes the obvious choice is the best one, however, and that’s clearly been the case for Black in the role of Po, the panda whose journey from noodle shop to prophecy-fulfilling glory has expanded to fill three theatrical features, a TV series, animated shorts, a video game, and even a planned live show — not to mention critical acclaim and more than a billion in box-office receipts. “Just about all animated movies teach you to Believe in Yourself,” admitted Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman. “But the image of a face-stuffing panda-turned-yowling Bruce Lee dervish is as unlikely, and touching, an advertisement for that message as we’ve seen in quite some time.”

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Tropic Thunder (2008) 82%


Ben Stiller’s experiences as a bit player on Empire of the Sun inspired him to write this barbed Hollywood satire about a group of pampered actors (led by Stiller, Jack Black, and Robert Downey, Jr. in blackface) whose entitled behavior leads their exasperated director (Steve Coogan) to try using a little cinéma vérité on their war movie, with decidedly unintended results. Each of the stars embodies a particular type of stereotypical Hollywood excess; for Black, portraying the drug-addled comedian Jeff Portnoy offered an opportunity to lampoon the self-serious efforts of lowbrow (and filthy rich) comics who try to prove their depth by “going serious.” Loaded with inside jokes, a marvelously insane Tom Cruise cameo, and thinly veiled insults directed at other actors, Thunder earned a healthy critical buzz to go with its $188 million box office draw. Calling it “Stiller’s Hellzapoppin’ Apocalypse Now,” Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum praised it as “a smart and agile dissection of art, fame, and the chutzpah of big-budget productions.”

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Bernie (2012) 88%


Under the right conditions and parceled out in the proper doses, Black’s stereotypical on-screen persona can be irresistible, which is probably why he’s so rarely been asked to step outside that box over the years — but when he does, the results can be extremely gratifying, as he proved with his starring turn in Bernie. A uniquely twisted, fact-based drama that reunited Black with his School of Rock director Richard Linklater, Bernie led viewers through the incredibly odd story of a Texas mortician whose surprising friendship with a cantankerous widow (Shirley MacLaine) comes to a very bad end — and opens one of the odder chapters in modern small-town American jurisprudence. “I had to forget what I knew about Black,” applauded Roger Ebert. “He creates this character out of thin air, it’s like nothing he’s done before, and it proves that an actor can be a miraculous thing in the right role.”

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