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No One in 2021 Went Over the Top Like Jared Leto

‘The Little Things,’ the Snyder Cut, and ‘House of Gucci’ are a true holy trinity of batshit performances

United Artists/Warner Bros./HBO/Ringer illustration

If you read anything this week, make it the New Yorker’s profile of Jeremy Strong, in which the Emmy-winning Succession thespian checks off every negative stereotype of Method acting. Strong refuses to rehearse scenes with his Succession costars because it doesn’t fit his process; he requested to be tear-gassed on the set of The Trial of the Chicago 7; he even shadowed a handyman to prepare for his role as a plumber in James Gray’s upcoming film Armageddon Time. (He also made Yale pay an exorbitant amount of money so he could hang out with Al Pacino when he was a student, which, frankly, is an awesome use of Ivy League funds.) With every anecdote, it becomes clearer that Strong is both sincere in his actorly convictions and at least somewhat oblivious to how grating his schtick might be for anyone around him: a tragicomic cocktail confirming that he is the perfect person to bring Kendall Roy to life. But while Strong views himself as following in the grand tradition of his acting idol, Daniel Day-Lewis, his behavior brings to mind a much more polarizing figure: Jared Leto.

Like Strong and DDL, Leto subscribes to the art of Method acting, staying in character for the duration of a production. But staying in character is one thing—Leto seems to pick the most extreme roles specifically so he can be insufferable. Consider his well-documented antics on 2016’s Suicide Squad: In an effort to get into the mindset of the Joker, a villain previously brought to life by Jack Nicholson and an Oscar-winning Heath Ledger, Leto sent rats, used condoms, and anal beads to his castmates. (He wisely excluded costar Viola Davis from these pranks, since she would’ve gotten away with murder.) This was all in service of an underwhelming performance that lasted 15-odd minutes in a critically reviled film.

Of course, the fact that Leto has won an Oscar—courtesy of his controversial performance as a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club—grants his behavior some level of immunity. It doesn’t matter that he’s responsible for the worst live-screen iteration of the Joker or the most inert scenes in the otherwise excellent Blade Runner 2049, Leto has the prestige pedigree that ensures he’ll be a fixture in Hollywood for the foreseeable future.

Leto’s playbook didn’t change in 2021, during which he played a serial killer suspect (The Little Things) and the failson of a fashion empire (House of Gucci), and briefly reprised his role as the Joker (Zack Snyder’s Justice League). But for the first time, Leto seemed to use these performances to lean into his natural instincts as a troll without, you know, needing to send anal beads to someone. It finally feels like he’s in on the joke rather than the butt of one. Leto’s year in movies has turned him from an actor everyone loves to hate into an actor everyone hates but nevertheless loves to watch.

Leto’s all-out 2021 began with The Little Things, a neo-noir thriller with enough similarities to Se7en that its director, John Lee Hancock, had to stress in interviews that the script was conceived before David Fincher’s film. To keep the comparison going, Leto is to The Little Things what Kevin Spacey was to Se7en. The two films differ in that Spacey’s John Doe is established as a serial killer while Leto’s Albert Sparma keeps his cards closer to the vest. Is Sparma responsible for a spate of brutal killings across Los Angeles, or is he simply a weird crime junkie with a police scanner who’s stringing two officers along because the proximity to a real-time investigation excites him?

The thrill of Leto’s performance is tied to the way the movie keeps his character’s culpability ambiguous. It’s as if The Little Things channeled the spirit of Leto’s character: taunting the audience by making Sparma seem as creepy as humanly possible without definitively pinning the killings on him. (It also helps that the film had Rami Malek, fresh off an utterly haunting turn in a Mandarin Oriental hotel commercial, playing a righteous detective with a loving family in the most bizarre miscasting of the year—I genuinely expected the twist to be that he was the killer.) And, boy, talk about creepy: All we can intuit about Sparma is that he (a) spends hours of his free time at strip clubs, (b) has hair greasier than the inside of a 1988 Ford Taurus, and (c) orders Shirley Temples to go from dive bars before waving at detectives like a guy who has absolutely shoved a dead body into the trunk of his car:

Despite boasting three Oscar-winning actors in Denzel Washington, Malek, and Leto, The Little Things didn’t give off the impression of an award-season magnet—even before middling reviews factored into the equation. But Leto’s supremely off-putting work didn’t go unnoticed, as he received a Golden Globe nomination that even the actor himself admitted he was “quite shocked” about. While Leto ultimately didn’t add a second Oscar nomination to his résumé, the fact that it was even a possibility speaks to how award voters often find themselves attracted to the most acting, instead of the best acting. And for better or worse, Leto’s performance in The Little Things was right in the Academy’s wheelhouse.

Granted, any discussion of Jared Leto Doing the Absolute Most isn’t complete without the Joker, and while the DC Extended Universe has happily moved on from his edgelord interpretation of the Clown Prince of Crime, Zack Snyder couldn’t resist adding the villain to his self-indulgent (yet kind of amazing?) superhero opus known colloquially as the Snyder Cut. In the only scene of the four-hour version of Justice League that wasn’t previously filmed, Batman (Ben Affleck) dreams of a desolate future in which his greatest fear—Superman breaking bad—comes to fruition. The rest of DC’s heroes and villains have to rally against a common enemy, meaning Batman and the Joker are on the same team. But that doesn’t mean they have to get along.

In their brief scene together, the Joker riles up Batman—what else is new?—who drops an F-bomb at his infamous adversary. But while Batman saying a bad word grabbed plenty of headlines, the most interesting part of Leto’s cameo is what’s absent from it. As if audiences weren’t already tired of Leto’s schtick, the Snyder Cut trailer included the Joker saying “we live in a society,” a reference to an enduring meme often misattributed to the anarchic character. Having Leto’s Joker say “we live in a society” would’ve been the DCEU’s equivalent of Deadpool breaking the fourth wall—alas, the actor just ad-libbed the line for the trailer. It’s a begrudgingly effective fake-out because of how plausible the empty platitude feels coming out of his mouth; remember, this is the man who once quoted Frederick Douglass alongside a photo of himself looking dramatically pensive. But by not saying the line in the film—and tweeting it out as a troll—Leto exhibited a previously unseen level of self-awareness and self-deprecation. It doesn’t excuse his otherwise aggravating turn as the Joker, but at least he got to bid farewell to the character on more appropriate(ly annoying) terms.

Leto closed out his chaotic 2021 with his one movie from this year that was actually engineered for Oscar buzz: Ridley Scott’s star-studded fashion drama House of Gucci. In the film, Leto plays Paolo Gucci, the paunchy failson of Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino), who oversees the family’s namesake empire. As a character, Paolo is supposed to be the laughingstock of the famiglia: someone who doesn’t have a designer’s eye no matter how hard he tries. (All it takes is one look at his purple corduroy suit to know that Paolo has serious Connor Roy energy.)

As a performer, though, Leto is hardly a failure: In a film that features Adam Driver, Lady Gaga, Pacino, Jeremy Irons, and Salma Hayek, he stands out. Leto is the actor most dialed in to what the tone of House of Gucci should be: a Godfather parody as flamboyant as Gucci’s fashion lines. While Lady Gaga used her Italian-that-sounds-oddly-Russian accent for nine months and Irons barely bothered to switch out of his native British, Leto employs a singsong-y affectation—“They may look-a the same, but they taste-a very different,” Paolo says about shit and cioccolato—that feels like an extended audition to replace Chris Pratt in the new Super Mario movie. (To be clear: He should replace Chris Pratt.)

Leto’s work as Paolo is hard to designate as simply good or bad. It’s more of a vibe. You either walk out of House of Gucci wanting to erect a statue in his honor or reenact the Huey Lewis and News scene from American Psycho. I wouldn’t hold it against anyone who found the performance exhausting, but after years of touting the virtues of Method acting to very irritating results, it’s refreshing to see Leto poke fun at himself. He’s described bringing Paolo to life as “birthing a bowling ball out of my sphincter” and has claimed that he was “snorting lines of arrabbiata sauce,” giving both the character and the film the level of seriousness it deserves—which is to say, none at all.

It won’t be long before Leto graces our screens again—he’s set to play Marvel’s vampiric antihero Morbius in the character’s self-titled Sony film next month. The bar is low for Morbius, which has neither the fanfare of Spider-Man nor the slimy (and horny) intrigue of Venom. But if Leto brings even half the manic energy to Morbius that he did for his trifecta of film roles in 2021, moviegoers will be in for a treat. Going forward, anything less than an over-the-top Jared Leto performance will make-a me sad.