If anything positive comes out of this relentless bent toward ‘90s nostalgia, it could be the rediscovering of some great acting talent that, for one reason or other, got swept under the rug. One of the first out of the gate is, of all people, Cuba Gooding Jr.
After winning his richly deserved Supporting Actor Oscar for Jerry Maguire, the character actor went on something of a 15-year walkabout through weird grasps for further award glory (Radio, Men of Honor) and family fare (Snow Dogs, Daddy Day Camp). But between the news that he’s going to be playing O.J. Simpson in next year’s American Crime Story and his dark supporting turn in this week’s Big Time, I think this could be Gooding’s time to finally reinvent himself for the better.
He does the self-parody thing very well here, portraying himself as a coked-up, washed-up has-been desperate for work (Steven Spielberg just shot him down for a part, claiming Cuba stole $50 from his wallet during the audition) and in debt to some dealers. He willingly checks himself into rehab in hopes of turning things around. And of course, it’s the same rehab that Ben and Jack are in.
Here’s where Cuba gets really good. At first, he’s menacing, throwing Jack up against a wall and threatening to twist his wrist off when the boys come along to offer him a part in the reality show they just cooked up. When he needs to try to cobble together some money for his debts, though, he turns sweet and enthusiastic, agreeing to help the boys shoot a “pilot” for their series where celebrities stalk paparazzi. As you can imagine, the whole thing is a ruse meant to let Cuba break into a teacher’s home and steal a bunch of stuff. (The logic that a schoolteacher has enough money to buy expensive jewelry and have a wad of cash in his wallet doesn’t add up but let’s not quibble on the details too much.)
Through it all, Cuba is as loose and funny and weird as ever. Perhaps more so than we’ve seen him be in a long time. I’m sure the guy got offered plenty of roles like this in the years following his Oscar win, a chance to repeat the swagger and strangeness he brought to the character of Rod Tidwell. He spent a long time attempting to prove that he’s not a one-note actor. After seeing this, I don’t think anyone would suggest that, but it helps that he could tap back into that comedic strain and adding new shades of darkness to it.
The nice thing is to see him matched note-for-note by the leads in the show, particularly the wiry ball of energy that is Alex Anfanger. This episode let him show off in big and little ways, from his freak out trying to get Del to come pick them up at rehab to his attempt to be a Chris Hanson-like TV host giving grief to the unwitting teacher, thinking the weedy suburbanite was a paparazzo. Like all great actors should be, Anfanger is completely fearless, throwing himself into every scene with an improviser’s spirit and, it would seem, little regard for his own personal safety. For as much as I think Cuba is going to get praise heaped on him for his turn in Big Time, it’s Anfanger who will surely be the show’s breakout star.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.