The underappreciated films of Jesse Eisenberg

To salute the incoming arrival of American Ultra, we salute some underrated treats from Jesse Eisenberg's back catalogue...

When Jesse Eisenberg was announced as Lex Luthor in Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, it made instant sense. Not because he was bald, not because he looks like or Gene Hackman or anything, but just because he’s one of those actors whose screen presence is so perfectly formed. You know exactly what they’re going for with their Luthor, just by Eisenberg’s name. It’s Mark Zuckerberg vs Superman, the supergod vs the awkward genius.

But that’s not the only big action movie he’s got coming up. First he’s going to be in American Ultra, a unique stoner/sci-fi mash-up where he stars alongside Kristen Stewart (it’s released in the UK on September 4th). Eisenberg first really burst into our consciousness in 2009 and 2010, where he perfected his anti-social millennium slacker nerd in Adventureland, Zombieland and The Social Network, perfectly veering from loveable to douchebag, depending on what the film needed. But here are ten other, lesser-known Eisenberg performances that are well worth tracking down.

Roger Dodger (2002)

This little indie comedy drama was Eisenberg’s first real film role of any note, and was also the debut of writer and director Dylan Todd. It’s a little rough around the edges, and it’s so indie it hurts, but that doesn’t stop it being very enjoyable.

Eisenberg even hits peak-Eisenberg in his first role, playing a dweeby high school virgin, who is schooled by his NY advertising hotshot player uncle (Campell Scott) on how to pick up girls. Based on that premise, it could easily be a douchebagy bro-fest, but both the script and the performance have a genuine awkward honest to them, and it shows Eisenberg’s dishevelled charms were there from day one.

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The Squid And The Whale (2005)

Prior to the trifecta of Adventureland, Zombieland and The Social Network, probably Jesse Eisenberg’s most high profile appearance was his role in Noah Baumbach’s family drama. Like most Noah Baumbach films, it’s about normal people dealing with relatively small problems, but told with a deftness of touch that opens us up to their everyday ennui. Loosely based on Baumbach’s own life, it follows two Brooklynites (Laura Linney and Jeff Daniels) in the in the midst of a divorce, and the effect it has on their two teenage sons.

Eisenberg plays the older son, and he’s screwed up, whiney, and kind of annoying. Only of course he’s only like that because of his parents, and their own personal issues. Eisenberg, Linney, Daniels and younger sibling Owen Kline make such a convincing family unit that the film easily alternates between awkward, funny and heartbreaking with ease.

The Education Of Charlie Banks (2007)

There’s a reason you probably haven’t heard of The Education Of Charlie Banks. That reason is that it’s the directorial debut of Fred Durst, best known as the eternally-adolescent cap-stand lead singer of bungling nu metal humanoids Limp Bizkit. Yeah, really. But given the benefit of the doubt, does Durst reveal a hidden talent for the movies?

No, he doesn’t really. It’s a pretty rote, obvious coming of age movie. Eisenberg plays a New York kid who upon arriving at college discovers that his roommate is his old neighbourhood bully. They grow, they learn etc etc. It is the most by the numbers Eisenberg performance in a lot of ways, the awkward kid who has a heart of gold. He might be on autopilot, but Eisenberg still carries the film, and makes it enjoyable. If you’re one of those people who are irrationally infuriated by him, this won’t convince you otherwise, but if you like Adventureland and The Social Network, like coming of age films, and you can laugh at a few clichés, it’s worth a watch.

The Living Wake (2007)

This overly-quirky indie flick never really broke out of the festival scene, but it’s worth tracking down if this sort of this is your bag. Mike O’Connell stars as an eccentric, sharp-suited, self-proclaimed genius, who upon discovering he is terminally ill, chooses to spend his last day on Earth as a so-called ’living wake’, sorting out his affairs with a perky demeanour.

Eisenberg plays his faithful tweed-adorned assistant in tow, and it tries to have a Jeeves and Wooster-style rapport between them. In truth, the film doesn’t quite work. It’s so twee and stylised it makes Wes Anderson look like Shane Meadows, and it can frequently become just straight annoying. But it is ambitious, unique, and if you like Eisneberg and quirky indie stuff, look it out.

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Holy Rollers (2010)

It’s far from perfect, but Holy Rollers is a fun, odd crime movie. Based on true events, Eisenberg stars as young orthodox Jewish guy from Brooklyn, who accepts a mysterious offer to take a trip to Europe. Soon enough, he discovers he’s being used as a drug mule, and slowly falls into a life of crime.

The film hangs its whole premise on Eisenberg being an unlikely criminal in traditional Jewish garb, and while that’s a memorable image it’s not really enough for a feature-length movie. But Eisenberg carries the whole thing, making it never less than watchable. It’s a good little crime yarn.

30 Minutes Or Less (2011)

There’s one thing a bit icky about 30 Minutes Or Less that puts me off it a bit. The film’s high concept is that when Eisenberg’s slacker pizza boy goes to do a dodgy looking delivery, he’s knocked out by a couple of criminals, who strap a bomb to him and force him to carry out a bank robbery. That’s not a bad set up for hijinks, but it’s also very similar to a real life incident that ended with the death of the real pizza guy. Which kind of taints the comedy.

Putting that aside though, it’s an underrated little comedy. It’s not as funny as it should be, but the set up gives it genuine tension to keep you interested. It’s also a very good role for Eisenberg. He’s essentially the bemused straight man, surrounded by over-the-top comedians like Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari and Nick Swardson, and he brings some genuine pathos to what should just be a dumb comedy. And at only 84 minutes, it makes a brisk change to the bloated Judd Apatow school of comedy.

To Rome With Love (2012)

To Rome With Love is one of those later day Woody Allen films, sandwiched between really good ones like Midnight In Paris and Blue Jasmine, that’s easily forgotten. It’s part of his recent European tour of movies, this time stopping off in Rome to do an all-star anthology of four tales set in the Italian capital, all of which are enjoyable, if rather lightweight

There is some very worthwhile stuff in there though. In particular, one strand follows Eisenberg as a young American architecture student who runs into one of his idols, played by Alec Baldwin. They form a friendship, and there’s a weird implication that Baldwin might just be a figment of his imagination. What makes it so enjoyable is the interplay between Eisenberg and Baldwin, and the crossover of two generations of slightly-unorthodox leading men. They’re great on-screen together, and it’ll be really cool to see them unite for a full movie.

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Night Moves (2013)

Kelly Reichardt is one of the greatest American directors working right now, but she’s not going to cross over into the mainstream anytime soon. She’s not going to direct a superhero movie or anything. But her controlled, minimalist films are fastastically riveting if you’re willing to give them the time and attention.

Night Moves is her most accessible traditional film so far, that can at least broadly be described as a thriller, and is probably the best entry point into her filmography. Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning play environmental protesters who plan to blow up a dam with the help of ex-marine Peter Sarsgaard. But paranoia quickly tears through the group, and Eisenberg expertly treads the line between passive eco-dweeb and dangerous weirdo perfectly.

The Double (2013)

For some reason, despite great reviews, Richard Ayoade’s follow-up to Submarine kind of flew under the radar. It’s probably because it’s an intentionally obtuse adaptation of a Russian novel, set in a hyper-stylised Orwellian nightmare that also looks like a 70s sitcom. But don’t let that put you off, it’s great.

Eisenberg plays an office drone who arrives at work one day to discover his boss has hired an exact doppelganger of him (also played by Eisenberg, obviously). No one else in the office notices the similarity though, which just adds to the film’s odd tone. Each one takes on one side of the archetypical Jesse Eisneberg persona. Eisenberg one is a loveable but pathetic nerd, Eisenberg two is the smarmy and hateable beta-male asshole. He plays both too perfection, but it’s not just actor-showboating. As the original Eisenberg slowly goes insane, doubting his very existence, it’s a tender, heartbreaking performance.

The End Of The Tour (2015)

The End Of The Tour is based on journalist David Lipsky’s memoir Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, about a roadtrip he took with the late, great, idiosyncratic author David Foster Wallace. Eisenberg plays Lipsky, Jason Segel plays Wallace, and on paper Segel has the much harder task, having to recreate a guy who is beloved by millions, where as Eisenberg just has to play some journalist no-one knows.

And Segel is fantastic. But Eisenberg has to anchor the film. It’s kinda of like Tom Cruise in Rain Man or Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter – when you’re playing the straight guy to such a big, memorable performance, you’ve got to anchor the film. And that’s difficult, almost harder than doing the big show stuff. But Eisenberg pulls it off.

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American Ultra is in UK cinemas on September 4th.

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