Have dinner with the parents of a toddler, and children’s movies tend to appear on the television. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up watching Elf, an inoffensive entertainment whose Broadway analogue I have recently written about elsewhere. In between Will Ferrell shenanigans, you may notice something adorable. Something snarky. Something cute, with a bit of a fuck-you edge. Its name is Zooey Deschanel, Actor—and it is something we don’t see much of any more.
Watching Elf this week was a shocking reminder that just ten years ago, Deschanel knew how to play surly. The film came out around the beginning of the nation’s infatuation with her, an obsession that peaked somewhere around 2008, when she and M. Ward released their first album together. At the time, I was onboard the Zooey-train. She was gorgeous; she was funny; she could sing. And then I saw her play live.
At a 2008 concert, I witnessed the beginnings of Deschanel’s, sigh, adorkable persona. While M. Ward bounced around behind her, having an excellent time being paid to play music, Zooey D. stood still, too awkward to dance. Crooning in an (entirely fake) Southern accent, she seemed to have no idea of her loveliness. I wanted to run onstage and hug her. I wanted to give her the confidence to dance. This was exactly what I was supposed to be wanting.
As the show ended, Zooey and M. exited right, while the band kept playing. My seats were far to the side of the theater, and when the awkward crooner stepped offstage, I saw something horrifying: she did a little dance. The woman who had been too starstruck to show off, too serenely beautiful to have fun on stage, had actually been having fun all the time. The awkward simpleton act had been pure manipulation. I had been hoodwinked. And, dagnabbit, America had been hoodwinked as well.
Though its roots had already been planted, the Deschanel backlash began the next year, with the release of the corn syrup-sweet (500) Days of Summer. Hollywood gave us what we thought we wanted—as adorable a Deschanel as we could stand. Over the next few years, she—or the puppet masters that control her—seemed to do everything possible to ram her appeal into the ground. She seemed to get dumber in each performance, becoming an insufferably cute woman-child whose big honkin’ eyes were capable of giving a look so vacant that anyone might feel like a pedophile. By the time she appeared in a series of nitwitty ads for the iPhone 4, playing a woman too dumb to understand how rain works, no one was surprised.
This is the character we expected to get on New Girl, a show whose early promos made it appear to be about a manic pixie dreamgirl whose quirkiness was so powerful that she was capable of changing the lives of not just one deadbeat, but three. As it happens, the show is much better than that. It’s a low-key, offbeat comedy with moments of real zaniness, and Deschanel’s character is dopey, but not insufferable.
On last night’s episode, a madcap drinking game called True Americans (which I want quite badly to play) led to about fifteen minutes of shirtless Deschanel. Wearing a wacky, sparkly bra, she bopped around the apartment, oblivious to the effect she was having on her hapless, besotted roommate Nick. By the end of the episode, when he (finally!) kissed her, it was a release of sexual tension that actually wasn’t there. She wasn’t acting sexy; she wasn’t acting interesting. She was doing the same bulbous-eyed cartoon character that she’s been playing for (at least) the last five years. Zooey Deschanel is talented, funny and smart. Once upon a time, she could act with a little venom. I’d like to see her in a part where she gets that chance again.