Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions
Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
Why not Danny DeVito? Huh? The words “national treasure” are frequently thrown in DeVito’s direction. I think that makes perfect sense. It’s completely justified. I just rarely hear about that greatness in the specific context of his gifts as an actor (and director). I find that strange. It’s fine that a lot of the praise thrown DeVito’s way these days is centered around the staggering lengths he will aspire to for laughs on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He’s been on the show since its second season, returning to a career in TV that also includes a lengthy run on the iconic Taxi. Perhaps, the problem with the perception of this insane, short man is the fact that his film career took a downturn by the end of the 90s. There are still good performances from then to the present, but you could also make a good enough argument that DeVito’s best acting work was in the 80s, on into the early 90s.
It’s Always Sunny ensures his legendary status as a comedic actor. However, if you want to take a longer look at his career, you’ll see one of the most consistently enjoyable performers of the past 40 years. The list of mediocre movies starring Danny DeVito is decently long. Well, it’s about as long as it gets for a good actor who generally makes good choices. That said, the list of movies featuring mediocre Danny DeVito performances is pretty much non-existent. In virtually everything he has ever appeared in, he has been nonetheless enjoyable in some of his worst roles, and he has been exceptional in his best roles. His range is perhaps the one thing about him that is truly underrated.
On more than one occasion, and with all the respect in the world to his consistent brilliance on It’s Always Sunny, he has been more than a growling malcontent. This month’s Make The Case will hopefully make that clear.
1. Romancing the Stone (1984)
To be sure, Danny DeVito has built a large portion of his career on playing greedy, clever men. These are guys who have ambition, and they don’t seem to be particularly stressed about adhering to a certain moral code. Romancing the Stone was one of the first major opportunities to play such a character — at least, as far as film is concerned.
Romancing the Stone is also one of the best films to feature DeVito like this. Ralph isn’t a purely evil man. He has a Peter Lorre quality of someone who is tired of being stepped on. There’s a formidable chip on his shoulder, and DeVito plays Ralph with sleazy, pragmatic, and oddly charming energy. It works well in this well-loved adventure story, which spawned a sequel, and made Michael Douglas a surprisingly appealing antihero.
2. Tin Men (1987)
Danny DeVito is yet another actor in which five films really isn’t enough. We have to skip over worthwhile entries like Ruthless People, which offers another amazing sleaze performance from DeVito. While his bad guys are fun, he has shown on repeated occasions his ability to play characters who have more going on than a desire to finally find the perfect get rich quick scheme.
His character in Barry Levinson’s film, in which two aluminium siding salesmen engage in a lengthy, decades-long feud with one another, isn’t a vile human being by any means. He wants to be successful, and he is certainly stubborn. Beyond that, Tin Men gives us one of DeVito’s most likable characters up to this point. Things like Taxi have let him play broad, untrustworthy hucksters. Those can pretty entertaining, but Tin Men is a good reminder that DeVito could do a lot more. At 73 years of age, as of this writing, you can still see a multifaceted actor, capable of good chemistry with virtually anyone. He certainly proves that here with Richard Dreyfuss, who occasionally wears on your nerves.
3. Batman Returns (1992)
Jumping just five years, from Tin Men, to Batman Returns in 1992, we’re also jumping over several of the best Danny DeVito movies of his career. Perhaps unforgivably, we won’t be able to include Throw Momma from the Train, The War of the Roses, Twins, or even the above-average Other People’s Money. I would suggest watching all of those, when you’re done with this list. It was not fun to have to cut so many worthy roles and notable movies.
It seems almost absurd to create a list of Danny DeVito’s best movies, and not include his iconic take on The Penguin. This would also be the first time DeVito collaborated with Tim Burton. The two would work together again on Big Fish, and they are currently working together on Dumbo. Burton’s vision for the sorts of characters DeVito should play is fairly specific. All of them are smart, unhappy misfits in some form or fashion. Batman Returns takes that to the extreme. DeVito’s legendary makeup is still pretty horrifying, but DeVito also creates a villain unlike anything we had ever really seen before. To be honest, we haven’t seen a bad guy quite like his Penguin since.
4. Matilda (1996)
I wouldn’t actually call DeVito’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel the best film he’s ever directed. Over the past 30 or so years, Danny DeVito has directed and produced numerous films. The quality of these films vary (I don’t think he’ll ever top War of the Roses, to be honest), but all of them are at least very compelling dark comedy works. Matilda is perhaps the brightest, but it still has moments of understanding the cruelty that people are capable of. Dahl understood this to a depressing degree, and DeVito seems to get it, as well.
While Matilda may not be his best directing work, it’s up there with the best of just about anyone else you can think of. What Matilda features is another exceptional scumbag performance. This time, as Matilda’s festering jackass of a used car salesman (with real-life partner Rhea Pearlman as his wife and Matilda’s mother). Mara Wilson created a beautiful, endlessly winning portrayal of the titular character. However, part of her sympathy comes from the constant shock of how horrible her family is. DeVito is right at the center of that, using the performance to make Matilda’s journey and story that much more meaningful.
5. Big Fish (2003)
DeVito next collaborated with Tim Burton on what is still currently the last really good movie he has made to date. Big Fish is a stunning marriage of Burton’s interests and aesthetics with one of the best stories he has ever come to. The movie also features a wide range of memorable, largely likable characters.
The role of Amos Calloway, who runs the circus Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor in the flashback sequences) stumbles upon, is a small one. At the same time, it is a pivotal role, and it’s one of the most pleasing in the movie. One of the great things about Big Fish is that it gives us a number of characters we wish we could hear more about. Unfortunately, we only get to really see them through the eyes of Bloom, and it’s not really fair to completely trust the memories behind those eyes either. Of all of these characters who populate this moving story, DeVito’s circus ringmaster is pretty close to the top of the list of those whose story could take up a movie all on their own.
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