Born in Queens, New York, on October 5, 1983, Jesse Eisenberg is the son of a professional clown mother and a college professor father.
It’s funny to think that that information might have informed the kind of actor he became – quietly playful, and yet tremendously disciplined. He recently showed off his scenery-chewing abilities as megalomaniac villain Lex Luthor in Zack Snyder’s critically panned Batman v Superman, but there’s also something comic and kitsch about some of his other performances, especially the ones from this early career.
He’ll be this year in Woody Allen’s new comedy, Café Society, a reunion with his Adventureland (2009) co-star, fellow young star Kristen Stewart. To celebrate his remarkable career up until now, how about electing our 10 favorite performances by him? Here’s the list:
10. Roger Dodger (Dylan Kidd, 2002)
This underseen early comedy was the first theatrical role for Eisenberg, an actor then-known as Kenny from Get Real, a short-lived TV comedy. The star here really is Campbell Scott, reveling in a juicy role as Roger Swanson, cynical advertising copywriter with a razor-sharp wit whose cocky attitude is based on his belief that he has mastered the “art” of manipulating women.
When his teenage nephew, Nick (Eisenberg) pays him a visit, though, asking Roger to guide him through the New York dating scene so that he can lose his virginity, he finds out not everything is as he thinks it is.
Scott gets most of the really great lines and moments, but Eisenberg’s game silliness and acute perception of the film’s perfunctory satire and misleading melancholy helps gluing the pieces together in a genuinely funny comedy that’s also smart and has a lot of heart – now that’s something we don’t see much nowadays.
9. Solitary Man (Brian Koppelman & David Levien, 2009)
In a way, Eisenberg’s role in Solitary man is similar to the one he played in Roger Dodger. Seven years separate them, however, and that guarantees Eisenberg is seen here playing a mature version of that character, much more in on the joke than Nick could ever be in all his teenage excitement.
In the film, Eisenberg plays Daniel, a college student who serves as a guide for Ben (Michael Douglas), an aging man whose maverick lifestyle seems to suit him less and less, when he comes to a college campus accompanying the daughter of his current girlfriend.
Ben tries to break Daniel out of his introvert romantic cocoon. Daniel gets a girlfriend. Ben makes a move on said girlfriend, and gets shut off. Like in Roger Dodger, the old cynical man learns something from his younger peers – unlike um Roger Dodger, Eisenberg gets to play thoughtful, bittersweet and funny, and turns out he’s really good at that too.
8. Louder than Bombs (Joachim Trier, 2015)
A deadly serious role in a career that tastefully explored the limits between comedy, satire and drama, Eisenberg’s Jonah in Joachim Trier’s family drama Louder Than Bombs showcases a side of him we never got to see before – vibrant, emotionally strong, incredibly complex, deeply mournful.
The plot sees him as an older son coming back to the family house where his father (Gabriel Byrne) and his younger brother (David Druid) live – the occasion: an exhibit of his deceased mother’s celebrated photographic work.
As these three characters deal with their grief, with their inability to connect after a tragedy completely disconnected them, with the differences in the way they remember this important woman in their lives, Eisenberg’s performance stands out as an intense representation of all the feelings and memories Trier keeps bubbling below the surface of his film.
7. The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
Now, here’s a messed up family for you. Noah Baumbach’s breakout hit concentrated in a couple of pseudo-intellectual adults whose separation affected their children, their lives and the lives of everyone around them. Bernard (Jeff Daniels) is a selfish snob and a decadent writer who has quite a problem with “philistines”, as he calls the people who do not spend their time reading books and watching movies.
Joan (Laura Linney) is an up-and-coming writer whose unfaithful behavior lead to the couple’s split. Younger son Walt (Eisenberg) gets to stay with his mom – the boy is a bundle of insecurity, incapable of a mature relationship with his girlfriend Sophie.
In the midst of tremendous (but very generous) performances by Daniels and Linney, Eisenberg gets to stand out in a role that lead him to be typecast in a few other movies as an insecure, introverted teenager – still, he shines here as a truly tridimensional, and somewhat empathetic, incarnation of that type.
6. Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009)
Superbad’s Greg Mottola took everyone by surprise when he followed up the Seth Rogen-Evan Goldberg scripted comedy hit with Adventureland, a much more dramedy-leaning outing.
This time, Mottola was in charge of the script, a sensitive and endearing growing up story set against the blinking lights of the titular amusement park, where James (Eisenberg) gets a summer job to cover his upcoming expenses at an Ivy League school in New York. He was planning on taking a tour through Europe, but his parents’ career setbacks sent him to Adventureland instead, where he meets and falls in love with a witty co-worker (Kristen Stewart), and finds out what’s truly important to him.
As a prickly would-be Ivy Leaguer, Eisenberg gets to play a different shade of nerdy teenager here, an almost rehearsal for his terrific performance in The Social Network. The subtlety of the script helps as he constructs a believable, flawed and still somewhat engaging character besides the talented Stewart.