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Jamie Foxx, Unsung

With his new movie ‘Sleepless,’ the multitalented artist is back as a leading man. But will he ever find a role that fully taps into all of his talents like ‘Ray’ did over a decade ago?

(Brian Taylor Illustration)
(Brian Taylor Illustration)

I don’t even know what to call Jamie Foxx anymore. He acts. As an Academy Award winner, in fact, he’s “acclaimed” in the very serious sense. But he’s also the guy who made “Blame It” with T-Pain. Plus, he’s one of the best stand-up comedians of his generation. People give heaps of credit to Jim Carrey for pivoting from In Living Color sketches to prestigious film roles, but Foxx has always done him one better: Jamie can act and sing his ass off, too.

Foxx fashioned all of those creative threads into a singular dominance in the mid-2000s, when he hit straight 7s in every field of commercial entertainment short of professional sports. (He played quarterback in high school, by the way.) Fresh off a no. 1 record with Kanye West and Twista called “Slow Jamz” — a sensual ode to old-school R&B on which Foxx sings the hook and the bridge — Foxx would go on to star in Ray, the 2004 biopic about Ray Charles, a crucial figure in Foxx’s musical canon. He’d then sing the hook, in character as Ray, on West’s own first no. 1 single, “Gold Digger,” released less than a year after Ray, and just five months after Foxx won the Oscar for Best Actor for the film.

In Foxx’s career, the 2004–2006 sweet spot of conjoined musical and dramatic success minted him as a permanent pop fixture. He’s the ultimate stage entertainer: a slick but friendly talker who sails through any given format of conversation. By himself, with just a microphone and perhaps a piano, Foxx could turn even a twilight telethon into the most debilitatingly hilarious performance of off-the-cuff music and jokes — and then, briefly, he might turn to a ballad, lip quivering and all, just to keep you on your toes.

Theoretically, Foxx is a comedian first and foremost. In his 20s, he was one breakout player among many from the wildly talented sketch-comedy roster of In Living Color, on which Foxx played the recurring character Wanda Wayne, the hopeless romantic. Shortly after the Wayans family effectively disbanded the show after five seasons in part due to censorship disagreements with Fox, the newly launched WB tapped Foxx to helm his own sitcom, The Jamie Foxx Show, which ran from 1996 through 2001. That’s where Foxx’s comedy chops peaked. Unlike many of his contemporaries — Chris Rock, Katt Williams, Wanda Sykes — Foxx doesn’t have a deep catalog of stand-up comedy specials; just three, the last in 2003, and also a compilation DVD full of miscellaneous footage, all available on YouTube.

His second and more popular special, I Might Need Security, includes a 12-minute piano session during which Foxx sets his jokes to musical riffs and then transitions into a series of impersonations — Babyface, Luther Vandross, and Prince — riffing on The Brady Bunch theme song. It’s my favorite performance of his, a unique and uncanny synthesis of Foxx’s disparate talents.

In the 16 years since his sitcom ended in 2001, Foxx has been juggling a successful music career, a dramatic film career, and the occasional turn to comedy, all at once; not to mention his secondary hustle as a SiriusXM radio host and an ideally ridiculous Verizon spokesman. Assuming he carries business cards and still updates his résumé on occasion, his credentials necessarily read: Jamie Foxx, Entertainer.

Unfortunately, his versatility casts him as a jack of all trades but master of none, at least relative to some. Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock, and Kevin Hart have all enjoyed various degrees of crossover from stand-up comedy to film, TV, and music. And while they’ve all outperformed Foxx as a comic, Foxx has them beat on every other front. Murphy had a top 10 hit record; Foxx has several. Rock makes great comedy; Foxx can make literally anything. Hart has Ride Along; Foxx has an Oscar. Perhaps because he only really stepped into the popular consciousness after “Slow Jamz,” “Gold Digger,” and Ray, Foxx is rarely conceived by mainstream audiences as a comedian. They instead think of him as the one handsome, black actor who sings and appears in the most random roles.

I watched The Jamie Foxx Show on the WB in the early 2000s, when the program aired in syndication during the after-school block. In retrospect, the show isn’t as fondly recalled as other contemporary black sitcoms, such as Martin or Living Single, in part because The Jamie Foxx Show never felt like a standalone production so much as a loose, improvisational forum for Foxx to hint, frequently and unsubtly, that he’d rather be a pop singer. In the show, his character Jamie King is a fledgling entertainer who moves from Texas to L.A. in order to make it big, working the reception desk at his family’s hotel, King’s Tower, until he does. He waits tables, too. On the show, Foxx’s character is always auditioning in some form or another, whether he’s nailing an impersonation of Busta Rhymes, in costume, in front of episode guest stars K-Ci & Jojo or flexing his own singer-songwriter chops in the show’s few sincerely romantic moments.

As a longtime fan, I’ve found that my favorite way to experience and frequently revisit Foxx’s very best performances aren’t by rewatching his best movies, or bumping his old albums, or watching The Jamie Foxx Show in syndication. No, Jamie Foxx is best experienced by browsing YouTube. Not just for his stand-up, but for his press-run interviews, too, which are, in Foxx’s case, always their own sort of performance. More than I’ve watched Any Given Sunday, I’ve watched the bit of I Might Need Security where Foxx, in a pugnacious but nonetheless self-effacing manner, recounts his physical altercation with costar LL Cool J on the set of Oliver Stone’s 1999 movie; a brawl that made gossip headlines during filming and only fully came to light in Foxx’s 2002 special, when he described the rapper allegedly punching him in the face. (“I ain’t no punk about my shit,” Foxx explains. “But I wasn’t ready.”) Foxx has a wildly amusing history of roasting his celebrity costars. His greatest (by which I mean his most entertaining) feud is with Terrence Howard, who costarred with Foxx in Ray. As with LL, Foxx skewered Howard (this time in a radio interview) through savage mimicry, doing a spot-on imitation of Howard’s voice, affectations, and mannerisms, which Foxx describes as the spacey ramblings of a method extremist.

I mentioned YouTube earlier: It’s crucial to any full appraisal of Foxx’s career insomuch as it hosts one of the most astounding performances of Foxx’s career, ripped from Shaq’s All Star Comedy Roast II. (Sure, you could buy the DVD and thus circumvent YouTube, but ain’t really gotta do all that.) It’s the notorious roast of Dallas Cowboys HOFer Emmitt Smith, on which the comedian Doug Williams spends a portion of his turn at the podium cracking jokes about Foxx, the roastmaster, only to find that the audience turns on him once Foxx — adopting the role of Williams’s conscience — starts to return fire, whispering a series of soul-obliterating jokes into his lapel mic while seated. I’m not Jamie Foxx. I’m your conscience.

On his SiriusXM show, The Foxxhole, Foxx and his cohosts have extensively clowned Katt Williams, Hart, and rapper Plies among other rivals, friendly and otherwise. Foxx’s playful combativeness is crucial to his performance in all forms. In Any Given Sunday, Foxx plays the suddenly famous quarterback Willie Beamen, who naturally fancies himself as a rapper and sex symbol; he shoots a pool-party music video to rebrand himself as such. To this day, Beamen remains the role that best encompasses Foxx’s core, satirical persona: a wise-cracking heel with a heart of gold.

After Any Given Sunday, Foxx made a run for more dramatic, starring roles in the 2000s. In 2001, Foxx costarred with Will Smith in Ali as boxing trainer and hypeman Bundini Brown, Foxx’s first role in a genuine Oscar contender. Foxx’s own stellar biopic, Ray, basically confirmed that he would strike a lucrative future in drama instead of comedy. Ray director Taylor Hackford cast Foxx based on the actor’s performance in Ali, and it was a casting decision that proved precisely and importantly correct; it is the film role that best encapsulates Foxx’s talents, and no other biographical subject could have ever, or ever has, blessed an actor to the extent that Ray Charles elevated Foxx in pop culture.

Ray makes great use of Foxx’s various strengths: his knack for impersonation, his sheen, his rhythm, and his studious grasp of black music. It’s also the last movie to fully exploit Foxx’s range, the unfortunate consequence of Foxx’s turn to character acting being that none of his film roles since Willie Beamen and Ray Charles have really allowed Jamie Foxx to go full Jamie Foxx. In Collateral (which premiered a few months before Ray), Foxx is purely a pawn. He’s greatly upstaged by Eddie Murphy and outclassed by Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. He’s relatively understated in Django Unchained. And he’s simply wasted as the preposterously corny villain Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In fairness, his very worst flops, The Soloist and Annie, can cite his performances as the very least of their problems.

What would it mean for Foxx to settle down into a genre once and for all? His new movie Sleepless, opening Friday, is his second cop thriller in 11 years, hopefully (but not likely) bound for a much better reception than Michael Mann’s big-screen reboot of Miami Vice. I’m always vaguely afraid that Foxx, having divided himself across so many mediums, genres, and tones, ultimately suffers from a critical deficiency on all fronts: He’s not quite legendary as a stand-up comedian, rarely celebrated as one of his generation’s essential character actors, and strangely disqualified from discussions of contemporary R&B artists, as if he were a novelty singer (in the same sense that Will Smith is a novelty rapper). He’ll soon make his writing and directing debut with a film called All-Star Weekend, featuring an all-star cast, which will add — assuming the movie doesn’t suck — yet another notch to his broad expertise. His is the sort of industrious, ambidextrous brilliance that otherwise goes unsung until the lifetime achievement award. For his own biopic, maybe he plays himself.