In Ben Affleck’s masterful, scenery-chewing contribution to sports cinema, Air, Chris Messina reinvents the concept of scenery chewing. Michael Jordan’s agent David Falk is first introduced alone in his office, on the phone with Matt Damon’s Sonny Vaccaro. His hair, blessed with one gray streak, is gelled to the gods. His eyebrows are freshly groomed. He wears a suit that might cost as much as a used car, and a tie that might cost as much as a normal suit. He talks smugly, with his mouth full—of food, but also of scenery. But Messina’s big scene comes later in the film, after Falk discovers that Vaccaro spoke directly to Michael Jordan’s mother. With his hair ungelled, his suit jacket off, and his suspenders dangling off his waist, Falk screams over the phone that he will bury Vaccaro alive, fuck the eyehole of his skull, and chew on his balls. Spit propels out of Messina’s mouth as if he’s Jonathan Groff in Hamilton. All at once, he is Ari Gold, Selina Meyer, and Kendall Roy.
The concept of chewing scenery—playing a part “in a very energetic and emotional way, that may seem artificial rather than natural”—is as old as the profession of acting, and has been present since the early days of cinema. And Messina’s performance lives up to some of the best scenery-chewing performances of all time: Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck, Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, Michael Sheen in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn–Part 2, and Affleck himself in The Last Duel. Air is a movie about men who get emotional about a basketball shoe (who among us hasn’t?). It includes Matt Damon shopping at 7-Eleven, Jason Bateman monologuing in an ’80s wig about his daughter, and Affleck running in a neon pink outfit (with leggings). And yet, Messina is its foul-mouthed MVP.
Guys who deserve a bar of soap in their mouths is a character type of its own at this point. Messina’s tantrum in Air is reminiscent of Succession, specifically Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy, both for the rapid and graphic dialogue and the way it’s filmed (claustrophobically, in an office). Like Kendall’s outbursts, from his bathroom breakdown in the pilot to the “family therapy!” chant, Falk’s outburst is defined by explosive body language and creative f-bombs, an explosion of repressed emotions.
Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, played by the incomparable Ian McShane, was known for his colorful language too, poetically saying words like “fuck” and “cocksucker” about every three seconds. In his performance as Falk, Messina applies a similar artistry to words including fuck, nuts, and balls, creating variations that no one knew possible. The performance also calls to mind Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire and Tropic Thunder. The way Cruise as Maguire melts down over relatively trivial events, sweating maniacally, yelling at everyone, abducting fish from the company tank; the way his studio exec Les Grossman says words like “fuckstick” and threatens to jam Matthew McConaughey’s dick into his own ass. Cruise, like McShane and Strong, utters some threats softly, but snaps unexpectedly. In Air, Messina is all snap.
Messina has established himself as a spirited character actor over the past few years. Before this pivot, he was most widely known for playing love interests on television. (By a select few, he was known for his small role in You’ve Got Mail as a ripped Fox Books employee.) A common thread in Messina’s notable characters—save for his little role in You’ve Got Mail—is a little snark. In The Mindy Project, Messina played Dr. Danny Castellano, a gynecologist/short Italian king who was mysterious, devoutly Catholic, and a little too close to his mother. He was mean, but he also had a big heart. In the 2018 HBO miniseries Sharp Objects, his majesty played Richard Willis, a charming but slightly smug detective who travels from Kansas City to the small town of Wind Gap to investigate the murder of two young girls. The character was a departure from Danny Castellano, but still had enough of that signature Messina edge to inspire at least one fancam set to an indie girl cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.” The shift toward more idiosyncratic roles started with 2020’s Birds of Prey, in which Messina played the truly chaotic henchman and possible boyfriend of Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis. Messina barely says a word in the role, but his presence is omnipotent. He has a grin that leaves you wondering whether you should laugh or run for your life (maybe both?), and a bleach job that set the internet afire.
Messina’s performance in Air, like its ’80s setting, is indulgent. He makes an art out of food acting, like Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven. He waves a tiny sword around at his desk. But Messina’s greatest accomplishment is that his movie-stealing performance is 90 percent phone acting. Even though he’s “on the phone” with Damon for most of his scenes, he’s technically alone, unable to feed off his scene partner. “Phone acting sucks! It really sucks,” Messina, who watched Robert Duvall’s phone call scenes in Network for inspiration, told Vulture. And yet he kills it, in the process proving that he can be just as powerful and magnetic as Damon or Affleck.
Messina has only that one “I’ll eat your nuts” tantrum scene in Air. But that’s enough. After his big moment, he takes a step back, even as the threat of snapping hangs like smoke in the air. At any time, he could start screaming about eating somebody’s balls. In Falk’s final scene, Messina chews both figuratively and literally. After the overwhelming success of the Air Jordan, Falk sits at a restaurant alone eating a big salad (no one gets in the way of a short Italian king and his big salad). Messina does not speak. He simply consumes. It is the satisfaction of a man who has conquered his industry, who has no more “fucks” to deliver. And Messina gives everything to the performance. His body and face are finally relaxed—his anger is gone, and all he needed to let it go was a shoe that earned $126 million in one year. “Man eats salad” is the perfect ending to a perfect Profane Guy Performance, one that will hopefully define the future of Chris Messina’s career as a character actor.
Carrie Wittmer is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with bylines in Vulture, Consequence of Sound, and Harper’s Bazaar. She tweets at @carriesnotscary.