Where’s the love (for Vince Vaughn)?

Yesterday, as I was dreaming up some weekend plans, a friend posed a revealing question: “Do you want to see ‘Four Christmases’ on Sunday?”

This question presented me with a dilemma of existential proportions. Why, you ask? Well, you see, Vince Vaughn is one of those actors whose career seems as jumpy as a virgin at a prison rodeo. He slam-dunks zany buddy comedies (re: “Old School,” “Dodgeball”), then drops the ball with paint-by-numbers clunkers like “Domestic Disturbance” or “Fred Claus.” (Yes, I’m aware I’m working the sports metaphor here. Go with it.) And when he tries genuine sincerity and emotion? Oh, the results will have you wishing your popcorn bucket was an airsickness bag (see The Onion A.V. Club’s review of “Four Christmases” for a more complete — and comical — take). And don’t even get me started on “The Break-Up.”

All this begs the question: Is Vince past his expiration date? Should I be worried that he is, in fact, a sociopath incapable of expressing anything more difficult than a sarcastic one-liner? Maybe so; after “Four Christmases” things aren’t looking so hot for VV.

Then I wandered back into the dark recesses of my mind (yikes — where’s the Swiffer when I need it?) and remembered three movies — all released in 1998 — where he stepped outside the bud-com box and succeeded. Nailed it, really … and I mean nailed in that “Wedding Crashers” way.

So, Vince, this list goes out to you from a fan who’s still hoping you can tap into that magic you had in 1998. Here are the Top Three Most Underrated VV Performances in a Motion Picture:

3) “Psycho” — Hitchcock snobs, if you put away your machetes and remained calm for 10 seconds you’d see the only reason you’re angry is because, deep down, in your heart of hearts, you know Vince’s take on Norman Bates is make-your-skin-crawl creeptastic. He puts his own stamp on the iconic character; he’s equal parts lost little boy and simmering madman. It’s like watching Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory come alive.

2) “Clay Pigeons” — This one’s proof that if VV plans to quit his day job, he’d make a damn-fine serial murderer. As Lester Long, Vaugh plumbs the damp, ill-lit depths of his psyche and comes up with a performance that tops his Bates turn in terms of sheer, unparalleled creepiness. He’s extremely unnerving and possesses the kind of high-pitched laugh, as Roger Ebert put it, “that, when you hear it, makes it seem prudent to stop whatever you’re doing and move to another state.” It sticks with you, and so does Vaughn’s creation.

1) “Return to Paradise” — Call this one the Best Movie No One Saw in 1998. This Hollywood take on the philosophical Prisoner’s Dilemma deserves its top spot in this trifecta because it is, quite simply, the best serious performance VV has ever given. His Sheriff is a complicated fellow, one who projects both amorality and ambivalence when he discovers a buddy he partied with in Malaysia is on death-row for hash possession. He wants no part of accepting responsibility, doing time to lessen his sentence, and yet … I will say no more, except that this is Vaughn’s best work. Period.

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