Hardworking American, you are having a bad day. You dropped your cell phone in the sink this morning, used the bleach detergent on your colored laundry, got sneezed on while waiting at the drugstore checkout. If ever a person deserved an hour of mindless television, you are that person. You sigh. You wake your DVR. You call up Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Zoned out with New York’s finest, swaddled in your favorite couch pillows, you feel, at last, protected from the day’s unkind surprises. Or do you? Something weird is happening on your screen. You blink, then double-blink. You wonder: What is Jeff Goldblum doing on my show?
That is the question millions of Americans asked, or should have asked, beginning earlier this spring, when Goldblum replaced Chris Noth on the eighth season of the crime procedural. The question has an easy answer: Goldblum plays Detective Zack Nichols, a wily shamus with a murky past who serves justice and limp wisecracks to the city’s worst criminal offenders. But that is not a satisfying response. The real question is what Jeff Goldblum, a guy who cannot for the life of him come off as a gritty, self-serious human being, is doing in the citadel of gritty, self-serious human beings. And why is he smirking? What’s so funny? To see Jeff Goldblum on the screen these days is to be confronted by a topsy-turvy version of the show you planned to watch.
We all know Goldblum is a quirky guy. But it’s rare that quirkiness is so starkly at odds with its surroundings. Law & Order has existed in one flavor or another for just short of 20 years; the recipe is as golden as a Wonka chocolate bar and basically unchanged since the ascendancy of Hammer pants. Our overcoated heroes beat the New York pavement in pursuit of heinous criminals, trawling from lavish townhouses to grim walk-ups and keeping countless coffee carts solvent along the way. Criminal Intent is the series’ most eccentric flavor, blending a high tolerance for idiosyncrasy (Vincent D’Onofrio’s Detective Robert Goren gets more fitful, obsessive, and shabby-looking with each season) with a low attention span for jurisprudence. But Goldblum exceeds even these allowances. The latest season doesn’t come across as Law & Order with Jeff Goldblum cast as a police dick. It comes across as an oblique, high-irony parody of Law & Order with Jeff Goldblum playing both the premise and the punch line.
His weirdness works from outside in. For reasons unknown, Nichols generally eschews the customary overcoat in favor of—in one key episode—a ski parka over a leather jacket over a fleece over a tie over a shirt, performing a number of his civil duties with his arms hanging slightly out and down, like a 4-year-old bundled up for a snow fight. In warmer climes, he glides behind his colleagues with his hands stuck in his pockets and a wan, dubious grin imprinted on his face. Words are exchanged. The words are normal Law & Order words, but you wouldn’t know it: Goldblum turns dialogue inside-out with stylized speech and a range of pregnant pauses, looping his eyes around the room with each caesura as if tracking an imagined hummingbird. Below, a catalog of his most jarring displays so far this season:
It’s hard to regard Law & Order through the usual lens of gray sobriety when its leading man is seen (for instance) doodling a giant eye on a legal pad instead of poring over case files. Yet Goldblum’s subversion reaches past these eccentricities. When he turns the show’s clunky punch lines on themselves—or when he grins impishly into the camera—he is doing something Law & Order characters aren’t supposed to do: He is communicating with a world outside Law & Order.
For several years now, Jeff Goldblum’s hallmark has been to play Jeff Goldblum characters as people who realize they’re living on a screen. By talking just a bit too loudly, by holding smiles a bit too long, by dwelling on his vowels and feathering his T’s with drama-school affectedness, he keeps us from suspending disbelief. And the net effect is irony: Even as the Goldblum body plays its role out on the screen, the Goldblum mind is pondering the episode right beside us, poking fun and throwing monkey wrenches where it can. The result is, not infrequently, brilliant. Recall Goldblum as preening oceanographer Alistair Hennessey in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic (2004):
Hennessey’s behavior is so stylized, he seems to be responding not just to the other characters but to the presence of the movie camera itself. For the typical Law & Order viewer, though, Goldblum’s style probably comes as something of a surprise. In the blockbuster films for which he is best known—Independence Day, Jurassic Park—his excesses were buffered and explained away by the tech-whiz parts he always seemed to play: Quirky behavior is nothing strange if you are a mad scientist.
Lately, Goldblum’s role selection has gone scattershot. No more is he typecast as an inventor ( The Fly), a chaos theorist ( Jurassic Park), a cable engineer ( Independence Day), and the like; instead, he shows up as a white-collar thug, a comedian Holocaust survivor, and a dog-faced CIA agent. These recent roles are colored more by Jeff Goldblum’s distinctive touch than Jeff Goldblum is by their demands. To go see a Goldblum movie these days is to wonder what Goldblum will make of it. This stylized presence sets him up to be a more nuanced, distinctive actor—even as it narrows the pool of parts that can accommodate him.
If anybody knows this, it’s Jeff Goldblum. In the 2006 faux documentary Pittsburgh, one of several recent indie film parts, Goldblum plays Jeff Goldblum trying to play Harold Hill in a small-time production of The Music Man, all so his Canadian lover can get a green card. (In a typically Goldblum-esque confluence of real life and performance, the situation is invented, but the actors are all playing themselves; their dialogue was largely made up on the spot.) Sanford Meisner, whose acting technique used emotional targets and an improviser's adaptability to give prepared material real-life rawness and spontaneity—“to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances,” as Meisner famously put it”> On one hand, Pittsburgh is a spin on the mockumentary, a form that is already spun. But it’s also a movie about the perils of trying to fit an outsize screen presence in a cookie-cutter role. As The Music Man’s exasperated director puts it near the film’s climax: “You can never not be Jeff Goldblum. You can never not bring your particular quirkiness or your particular eccentricity to it. But my job is to make sure we’re all in the same play.”
This pithy formulation is the problem facing Law & Order in a nutshell. In the past decade, Goldblum has gone from being a product of Hollywood—an actor best known for his dealings with dinosaurs, space aliens, and giant insect mutants—to an artist clawing at its boundaries. He’s fun to watch on Criminal Intent,despite his ravages on the show’s long-standing personality; his season has more than once nosed into the Top 10 in cable ratings. Part of the fun comes from watching an artist with a major-motion-picture style bring his talent to a more constrained form—like John Updike kicking off a crime thriller or Yo-Yo Ma attempting tango music. But there’s also pleasure in seeing the formulaic behemoth of Law & Order tripped up and cast onto new, uncertain ground. Goldblum’s irrepressibility, the sheer volume and variety of his performance, makes him one of the most interesting things to show up on Criminal Intent in years. Interesting is not the same as fitting, though. The show is going to have to grow a lot if it intends to hold him.