Jack Black has an acting style all of his own. When you see his name on a movie poster, you know exactly what you’re in for: a manic man child who has to grapple with reality and responsibility to become a more measured, if not matured, version of himself.
Through the power of kung-fu, or rock and roll, or lucha libre, Black’s characters evolve from hapless idiots to more knowledgeable goofballs. Black has carved out this niche through his extensive filmography: there’s rarely been a year since 1992 where Black hasn’t been in at least two films or more.
In fact, 2020 was the first year of his career where Black wasn’t in any movie at all. He can hardly be blamed for that: coronavirus found Black focusing on his increasingly successful YouTube channel, solidifying his eternal live-wire presence in multiple forms of media.
To celebrate Black’s birthday, we’ve sorted through his starring roles to find his best performances. With all due respect to Nacho Libre, Tropic Thunder, and the Kung-Fu Panda series, these are Jack Black‘s five most essential roles.
Jack Black’s five best roles:
High Fidelity (2000)
To call Black’s part in the 2000 adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity a “starring role” wouldn’t be entirely accurate: he technically plays second fiddle to John Cusack and Iben Hjejle, and was easily less famous than cast members like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tim Robbins, and Joan Cusack. But to watch High Fidelity is to see the Jack Black that we all know and love break out in a significant way.
As pretentious record store clerk Barry Judd, Black bounces off the walls with his signature enthusiasm. Even when he’s an unapologetic dick, Black still brings a radiant eagerness and unbridled zeal to Judd’s meanest put-downs. The film’s pièce de résistance comes when Black gets to bust out his impressive vocal range by singing Marvin Gaye‘s ‘Let’s Get It On’ in front of a crowd that finally matches his energy.
School of Rock (2003)
The M.O. for School of Rock was simple: take Barry Judd, tone down all of his overwrought asshole tendencies, and let him bring the power of rock to the people who need it most, namely a bunch of uptight private school kids and the parents/teachers who keep them there. In essence, Jack Black got to play Jack Black in a starring role, and he took to it with untamable liveliness.
Whether it’s giving the kids homework through listening to classic rock records or explaining how to put a rock and roll band together, from the band to the crew to the
groupies manager, Black is a tornado that rips through the strict atmosphere of the school and unleashes everyone’s inner rock star.
School of Rock remains Black’s most iconic role, largely thanks to how close it matches his real-life personality.
Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006)
Speaking of matching real-life personalities: Jack Black thrives when he’s playing a somewhat exaggerated and fictional version of himself that is still easily recognisable as the Jack Black that the world has come to embrace. Black’s first major break as a leading man came beside his Tenacious D bandmate Kyle Gass in the duo’s eponymous HBO television series, and when Black broke big, he returned to his partner in comedy rock crime to produce a feature-length film.
Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny contains a fair amount of stoned out idiotic humour, but it remains startlingly rewatchable in the 15 years since its initial box office failure.
That’s largely thanks to Black’s naive drive to become the greatest rock star in the world, complete with hilarious meetings with Sasquatch and Satan, played by John C. Reilly and Dave Grohl, respectively (the sheer star power in the cameos, from Amy Adams and Ben Stiller to Ronnie James Dio and Meat Loaf, is also a major reason to return to the film).
By the 2010s, Black had firmly established himself as the go-to man-child funny man in cinema. So, of course, it was time to prove that he was a serious actor by taking on a non-comedic role, as is per tradition. In what wound up being a smart move, Black paired down his reputation for deranged insanity and went for
Black completely sells the earnest compassion of a character like Bernie Tiede, someone who gets pushed too far and eventually reaches a breaking point. Even when he turns murderous, Black never lets the crazed wild-man of his normal persona seep in, turning in an understanding and strangely enthralling performance that proves he’s more than just a real-life cartoon character.
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018)
Gus Van Sant‘s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot mainly acts as a vessel for other actors to show off their dramatic bonafides. Joaquin Phoenix gets the central role of a quadriplegic alcoholic, while Jonah Hill gets to break his manic persona to take on the role of Phoenix’s AA sponsor.
Comparatively, Black’s role is minor but essential. As Dexter, Black is the man whose drunk driving accident causes Phoenix’s character to become a quadriplegic. Black’s character is smarmy, slimy, and completely unlikeable, a first for Black’s normal teddy-bear persona. His ability to relate to, and then nearly kill, Phoenix’s cartoonist is one of the wilder turns so far in Black’s career.