When Woody Harrelson's career returned to the world of the living after last month's Zombieland dominated the box office, it was only the latest in a series of peaks and valleys for the actor. For every Indecent Proposal, there was a The Cowboy Way to follow. For every Natural Born Killers, a Money Train. But Harrelson is doing a strange thing this week: taking giant steps both forward and backward at the same time, with the concurrent November 13 releases of Oren Moverman's The Messenger and Roland Emmerich's 2012.
First, the good news: Harrelson's performance in The Messenger—a gut-wrenching drama about soldiers who inform next of kin that a loved one has been killed in Iraq—is stunning. Harrelson plays Captain Tony Stone, a recovering alcoholic, who's assigned to show a green staff sergeant (Ben Foster) the ropes of casualty notification. Harrelson's Stone is, from minute to minute, alternately wise, comedic, desperate, stoic, and unhinged. His interaction with Foster drifts from paternal to co-dependently enabling, as each struggles with tragedies both personal and professional. A hit at Sundance this year, it's easily Harrelson's best work since The People vs. Larry Flint, which earned him an Oscar nomination in 1996.
Which would have made it a good time to take a break and let the praise roll in. Instead, Harrelson signed on for 2012, the end-of-days schlockfest about Mayan calendars and Earth's annihilation and outrunning flaming meteors in your car (working title: John Cusack and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day). Harrelson plays Charlie Frost, a kooky conspiracy theorist, and a key part of the movie's insipid viral-marketing campaign. Seriously, how many times can Emmerich destroy the world? Or at least an innocent theatergoer's Friday night?
So consider yourself warned: There are two very different ways to get your Woody fix this weekend, and only one is worthy of Cheers.