Entertainment

Who Would You Rather?: Robert Downey, Jr. vs. Jude Law

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We recap the Sherlock Holmes stars’ bumpy careers and dazzling cheekbones.

BY PHIL NUGENT
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We here at Nerve fully subscribe to the idea that smart is sexy. Does that mean that Sherlock Holmes, pop mythology’s most enduring image of the smartest man in the world, is also one of the sexiest? In Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, Holmes was a chivalrous misogynist with antifreeze in his veins. But Guy Ritchie’s new movie — starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes — is hardly the first time that a heartthrob has been served up as the great detective.

The real innovation of Ritchie’s film is the casting of another perennial Sexiest Man Alive, Jude Law, as Holmes’s sidekick Dr. Watson, a character often depicted as a pear-shaped bungler and one never previously associated with any sort of flash. When these competing pin-up idols meet on the field of battle, who will be the victor, the one who makes the audience sigh the loudest? Sherlock Holmes would recommend that we examine the evidence.

1. Back to School (1986)

Fresh from a stint on Saturday Night Live, the twenty-one-year-old Downey uses his supporting role in the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School to establish a new rule for movies: if you can’t take your eyes off the goofy guy with blue hair who’s billed after Burt Young, you’re probably looking at a star in the making.

2. Two Girls and a Guy (1997)

Director James Toback’s lascivious low-budget film Two Girls and a Guy (mostly filmed in an apartment, with the cast of three alluded to in the title) is basically an excuse for Downey to show how little help he needs to carry a movie. Don’t try this at home.

3. Gattaca (1997)

In one of his first attention-getting roles, in the sci-fi film Gattaca, Law plays a damaged inhabitant of a society in which selective breeding ensures that everyone will, well, look like Jude Law. Because he gets the chance to play angry and bitter, Law comes across as a lively presence in this drowsy setting. Appearing opposite Ethan Hawke can only have helped.

4. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

In a shift away from Gattaca, Law plays the nicest person in The Talented Mr. Ripley, a slumming rich boy in Italy who’s murdered by a sad, psychotic poor boy who wants to swipe his identity. Law turns out to be that rare performer who can make niceness attractive, though it does the movie no good that you miss him when he’s gone.

5. Ally McBeal (2000)

Downey’s pre-comeback comeback role on Ally McBeal announced his arrival at an older, more experienced level of romantic sadness, and peaked with the holiday episode in which he sang Joni Mitchell’s "River." Docked a notch because it led to his decision to record an album that’s harder to forgive than anything he was arrested for.

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6. A.I. (2001)

With his movie career still young, Law’s gorgeousness was already so well-established that he could spoof it with a role like Gigolo Joe in A.I. His robot stud provides the only light touches in a movie centering on a little robot boy and his talking teddy bear, and once again, you miss him when he exits the proceedings too early.

7. "I Want Love" (2001)

In his first job after the drug bust that cost him his Ally McBeal gig, Downey, looking appropriately harried and weather-beaten but game, starred in the video for Elton John’s "I Want Love", lip-syncing to the entire song in a single take. Oddly enough, it suggests a sequel to Less Than Zero if his character had grown a brain and somehow survived his twenties. And if there hadn’t been anyone else in that movie. Which there might just as well not have been.

8. Road to Perdition (2002)

Making fun of your own sexiness is one thing; trying to get points for hiding it behind a makeup job that puts the "Ugh!" in ugly is another. As a bug-eyed hitman who learned about dental hygiene from Bobby Peru, Law shows that he can manage to be grotesque. But he also shows that grotesquerie can be quite boring.

9. Alfie (2004)

Law’s bankability took a big hit when he started being asked to carry big movies by himself. He couldn’t supply enough acting invention or personal charisma to jolt these roles into full sustained life, so his reputation as a thinking person’s sex symbol took a hit too. This unnecessary remake of the 1966 movie about a Cockney Casanova proved especially embarrassing, since it stacked him unfavorably against the star of the original, the sainted Michael Caine.

10. Iron Man (2008)

Our newly buff hero’s belated graduation to mainstream stardom spelled out his career philosophy in a simple zen koan: saving the world may be sexy, but saving the world in between dissipated wisecracks is sexier.