Most people first met Chris Pratt on April 9, 2009, a little more than halfway through the pilot episode of Parks and Recreation. He played Andy Dwyer, an oafish goofball who recently broke both his legs when he fell into a pit near his girlfriend Ann Perkins’ (Rashida Jones) house. Initially, the character didn’t seem very promising — as Pratt himself later admitted, Andy “was the kind of douchey guy” — but the writers decided not just to keep him on the show but to develop him into a more well-rounded individual. In the process, Pratt (who wasn’t yet 30 when Parks and Rec premiered) gave us one of the great regular guys of recent years.
Not very bright but blessed with a big heart and a clear sense of right and wrong, Andy was the sort of person you’d grab a beer with, while the man who played him, because he was less famous than his costars, became our real-life Andy. It was easy to conflate the two: Even if Pratt was smarter than his fictional counterpart, he exuded the same sort of cheery, irreverent bro-tastic energy. So many actors talk about “motivations” and “getting into character”; refreshingly, Pratt always came across as a guy who winged it, coasting on his charm and sweetness. He’d tell stories about dropping out of school and sleeping in a van in Maui. (“We just drank and smoked weed and worked minimal hours, 15 to 20 hours per week, just enough to cover gas, food and fishing supplies,” he once said.) Most actors feel preternaturally talented, a special breed of human beings. Chris Pratt seemed like one of us.
Like most people who loved Parks and Rec, I adored Andy, and so, I was thrilled when I heard that Pratt was making the leap to big-screen roles. He’d done some good work in small parts in Moneyball, The Five-Year Engagement and Zero Dark Thirty, but they felt like variations on Andy’s wide-eyed naivety. Mostly, it was amusing to think of Andy Dwyer helping to kill Osama bin Laden or hit a crucial home run for the Oakland A’s — it was as if Burt Macklin or Johnny Karate had suddenly stumbled out of Pawnee and entered real life.
But 2014 was the turning point for Pratt, who made the transition to leading man in two of that year’s biggest hits, The Lego Movie (where he voiced the adorably average Emmet) and Guardians of the Galaxy (where he’s the classic-rock loving Star-Lord). The following year, he was in an even bigger hit, Jurassic World, where he’s an Indiana Jones-like dinosaur trainer. (In fact, a rumor started around that time that Pratt was going to take over the Harrison Ford franchise as well.) Suddenly, Pratt was one of Hollywood’s hugest stars.
With the arrival this weekend of The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, now would seem to be a good time to celebrate Pratt’s unlikely career ascendance. Instead, I find myself less and less enthused by his success and his choices. I enjoyed the first Lego Movie and the Guardians films — although I’m still mad that Star-Lord does the single stupidest thing in Avengers: Infinity War — but Pratt’s transformation from lovable, Andy Dwyer-esque regular guy to Big Deal Movie Star has been surprisingly dispiriting. Ultimately, maybe we don’t really want regular guys as our action heroes. And maybe we’re fooling ourselves in the first place by assuming any major actor is a “regular guy.”
In The Lego Movie 2, Pratt is once again Emmet, who has to rescue his friend (and possible love interest) Lucy (Elizabeth Banks) after she’s taken prisoner by aliens. This gives the film an opportunity to reimagine Emmet as a reluctant Star-Lord-like space commander, while a new character, Rex Dangervest (also voiced by Pratt), is an on-the-nose parody of Pratt’s macho movie-star roles in Jurassic World and The Magnificent Seven. One of this sequel’s big jokes is the acknowledgment that Pratt isn’t the same sweet underdog he was when he made The Lego Movie. In a sense, Rex is the guy that Pratt has become onscreen, and it’s telling that Rex is a bore.
The trick of Pratt’s Parks and Rec performance is that it was so unassuming. While Amy Poehler and the rest of the show’s star ensemble shouldered the narrative load, he got to goof off in the margins. But what was charming on the periphery has proved a lot less satisfying front and center. He’s fun company in the Guardians movies, but that’s partly because he plugs into those films’ nerdy/jokey tone — when Star-Lord meets up with the other Avengers in Infinity War, he’s a lot less compelling of a character than those iconic heroes. And the longer he’s been a movie star, the less comfortable he seems embodying the part.
You can blame the lackluster characters he plays in Passengers or The Magnificent Seven, but I think it goes deeper than that. Movie stars make you believe that they belong up there — that they’ve got something you don’t have, and therefore, they’ve earned their place on the screen. As likable as Pratt is, he hasn’t yet done that. He’s still Andy Dwyer, not quite sure how he got here.
There have been other “regular guys” who became movie stars. Bruce Willis was a hit on Moonlighting before he surprised everyone by playing such a convincing action hero in Die Hard, a thriller that worked in large part because of the juxtaposition of John McClane’s (and Willis’) seeming ordinariness and the harrowing circumstance that he found himself in. But Willis made the leap to film star, and Pratt hasn’t, no matter the number of blockbusters bearing his name. As much as we all enjoy Willis because of his regular-guy charms, there’s actually more than that to him. If there weren’t, we wouldn’t keep watching him.
Stand-up comics will talk about the importance of projecting confidence and putting the audience at ease — removing any anxiety from the room that the performer doesn’t know what he’s doing so that everyone can laugh and have a good time. Movie stars have to do something similar, even though they’re not in the same room as us. The biggest names got that way because there’s something ineffably exceptional about them. Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Evans project a mightiness that makes them stand out. They can be “relatable” as movie stars, but they also exude a specialness — almost like a secret we’re not privy to. It’s a strange, subjective sensation, but we feel it when we’re in the presence of a movie star — and we notice it when it’s not there.
In The Lego Movie 2, Rex Dangervest tries to teach the dopey Emmet how to be cool — essentially, how to be a proper action hero — and the whole subplot feels like a commentary on Pratt’s possible fate. The sweet, easygoing looseness he displayed on Parks and Rec, which was so central to why people like me loved him, has rarely been in evidence on the big screen. Instead, a stiffness has crept in, like he’s still trying to find his footing. On TV, he was a regular guy. In films, he’s just ordinary. That sounds cruel, but it speaks to what films do to actors — they turn mere mortals into larger-than-life figures, but they also expose what’s not fully confident or spectacular in them.
In the end then, Pratt’s mediocre film career argues that, really, regular guys aren’t the best movie stars. They’re too normal, too insignificant, too much like us. Watch enough films and you may wonder what it might be like if you were the star of one. Pratt provides the answer — and serves as a reminder that maybe we should be grateful we’ll never get to live out that particular fantasy. Who’d want to find out how frighteningly average they actually are?