Jeff Daniels is a prolific actor, appearing in a number of high profile films since 1980, perhaps best known for his role in the comedy Dumb and Dumber (1994), starring opposite Jim Carrey, and in the acclaimed television series, Newsroom. Contributing to all genres, he has been a consistent and often under-valued actor who has not gained the high level of fame of many other leading men, but remains a renowned figure in the business with an impressive filmography. Here are 5 Jeff Daniels films that you need to see (again).
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
After a revealing part in the Academy Award-winning Terms of Endearment (1983) opposite Debra Winger, Daniels got his first leading role in a Woody Allen film, cast in two parts, Gil Shepard, an actor, and Tom Baxter, the character Shepard plays in the titular film within a film. The story follows a young woman named Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a lonely housewife in the 1930s, finding escapism in the movies. When she seems particularity drawn to an adventure film called ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo,’ about an archaeologist (Daniels) who comes to Manhattan for vacation, the on-screen character notices Cecilia sitting in the audience over and over and in a shocking twist, steps off the screen and into reality, wanting to know more about the woman always watching.
The film, a comedy at heart, becomes a loves story but a complicated one as the studio goes into panic as the unprecedented action of the fictional character has inspired other Tom Baxters in other theaters to try the same. To try and convince Baxter to return to the fantasy world of his movie, the actor who played him, Shepard, travels to New York and, you can guess, ends up involved in a love triangle between him, his movie character, and Cecila. Under the deft comedic direction of Allen, that’s pure gold.
Actually though, The Purple Rose of Cairo is a surprisingly deep and affecting story. Daniels is really good as the two diverse characters, each allowing him to explore two personalities. The amusing and creative story, done later and with a bit more tongue in cheek with Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Last Action Hero, the twist is both funny and thought-provoking, with one naturally thinking about which world is the better one to remain in. Smart, often very funny, and balanced by Daniels’ great turn in two roles, this is a real cinema-lover’s film that modern audience should still embrace.
Grand Tour: Disaster in Time (1992)
Originally titled Timescape, this curious sci-fi film casts Daniels as Ben Wilson, a recent widower who moves back to his hometown with his young daughter Hillary (Ariana Richards) to renovate an old guest house. That alone would make for an interesting drama, but when a tour bus rolls up and its passengers want rooms, things begin to take a strange turn. With the house unfinished, no one takes Wilson’s suggestion to head to the center of town and stay at a much larger hotel. More odd, these ‘tourists’ seem peculiarly dressed and have no cameras. What kind of tourist has no camera?
While sci-fi by nature, the film is more of a mystery than anything else as the plot unfolds in increasingly strange ways, seeing Ben begin to deduce that these tourists are not exactly who they say they are. When he gets a look at one of their passports, which shows dates from decades apart, he recognizes a pattern as well; they all are stamped on the same day as horrific disasters, including earthquakes and volcanoes. So why are they here now?
Directed by David Twohy, Disaster in Time is a small film about characters rather than visual effects, and it’s all held together by Daniels’ impressive work as a man in mourning trying to cope with a terrifying reality that seems utterly impossible. A strong cast, including Richards, a full year before her now iconic role in Jurassic Park, help keep this a fun watch, but it’s Daniels who is reason to put this on your list.
Fly Way Home (1996)
A lot of children’s movies tend to pander to their target audience, especially live-action dramas about family, and Fly Away Home certainly has potential to do so, but with Daniels, cast as Thomas Alden, another widower, and a great script, this is a surprisingly emotional film. Centered on Amy (Anna Paquin), Alden’s estranged 13-year-old daughter, who makes a connection with a flock of goslings whose mother was killed, it tells of a father and daughter coming together to both save the birds and bond themselves.
The premise is based loosely on real life, but that aside, the touching relationship that forms between Thomas and Amy is never contrived, avoiding the clichés of the genre, allowing the story to be far more organic than expected. Meant to be inspiring, it truly captures imaginations and becomes a gripping tale of suspense in many ways as the fate of the geese seem always in question. The solution is pretty amazing.
Daniels has a warm, fatherly presence here that isn’t weighted down by the loss of his wife but rather uplifted his earnest hope in connecting with his heartbroken daughter. Paquin is remarkable as well, the young star truly convincing in another wonderful performance, this after her award-winning role in The Piano. This is a great family film.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
So yes, in The Squid and the Whale, Daniels plays Bernard Berkman, the father of a dysfunctional family who has a sexual relationship with Lili … played by Anna Paquin, who played his daughter in Fly Away Home. Uncomfortable anyone? It’s definitely a minor hurdle if you’re fan of that film. But that said, The Squid and the Whale is, nonetheless, a uniquely dark drama that is by any measure, one of Daniels’ greatest role, a performance unlike any he’s ever given. A scathing, almost bitter take on divorce and the decline of a family in ruins, it’s a monumental film that deserves to be studied and Bernard a character that should stand as one of the greats as well.
It centers on the relationship of Bernard and Joan (Laura Linney), he a once promising author, now spending more time teaching, and she, now a highly-acclaimed writer of her own merit. Their high intelligence and aggressively caustic personalities have wrung nothing but conflict between them, leaving their two sons, 16-year-old Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and 12-year-old Frank (Owen Kline), as debris in their wake, forcing them to choose sides. It has damaging affect on both.
Directed by Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale is a deeply personal film with two simply brilliant performances by Linney and Daniels, with Daniels especially searing in a tour de force turn that is shockingly good. For fans of his comedic work, which is decidedly slight already, it is illuminating, reshaping expectations. It’s draining and affecting, but because so, rewarding. A great cinematic performance.
It’s rare when a horror film crosses genres and reaches critical appeal as much as this little thriller did, becoming a minor phenomenon on release for its broad comedic and authentic approach, giving audiences reason to scream with fear and joy. A riff of sorts on old-time B-grade monster movies of the 50s, the spider invasion theme struck a chord and proved a hugely successful gamble with Daniels cast as Doctor Ross Jennings, a physician having just moved his family to the countryside. Little does he know though, so has a particularly nasty arachnid from South America, stowing away inside a casket and hungry to set up camp.
While the film taps directly into our baser fears, it also finds the right shades of amusement in keeping it centered, and while the peripheral of this spectrum sees serious-minded entomologist Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) on one side and sardonic pest exterminator Delbert McClintock (John Goodman) on the other, it is Daniels who keeps it all in balance, a good father with a terrible case of arachnophobia who finds himself forced to be a hero. Considering the sheer number of spiders, that’s a pretty significant deal.
With executive producer Steven Spielberg behind the project, the movie naturally was a crowd-pleaser, and with great visual effects, a sharp script, and clever directing from Frank Marshall, Arachnophobia has a lot going for it. Throw in a terrific performance from Daniels, who brings an everyman sensibility to the part, along with some great timing and pitch-perfect charm, this is a great watch, filled with everything a movie fan looking for a good time could want. Well, unless you’re scared of spiders.