Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Great Performances: Jason Segel in Undeclared

From time to time, I want to highlight a performance that I find truly remarkable.  This may be from film or TV and could be a leading role, a supporting role, or even a guest appearance.

I first noticed Jason Segel in the little-seen film SLC Punk! (1998) playing Mike, the only non-punk friend of the punk protagonists.  The character was a hilarious mixture of sweet and crazy and Segel was so comfortable in the role that he has basically played these notes over and over in every performance he has given since.  In the late, great TV show Freaks and Geeks, Segel played stoner teenager Nick Andopolis whose heart was always in the right place, but couldn't help but take his crush on lead character Lindsay too far.  Judd Apatow, the executive producer of Freaks, loves boosting the careers of actors that he works with (see also: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, etc.) so it is no surprise he found a place for Segel on his post-Freaks sitcom, the also short-lived Undeclared.

Here, Segel takes his "nice, but insane" schtick and cranks it up to maximum creepiness.  He plays Eric, the needy high school boyfriend of college freshman Lizzie (Carla Gallo, another Apatow regular) who stands in the way of our hero (Baruchel) getting the girl.  Jason Segel only appears in 7 episodes of the single season that Undeclared was given, but he quickly stands out as best character on the show.  Apatow clearly understood this because the final episode of the show was told through Eric's point of view.  I'm sure if Undeclared was renewed, Segel would have been promoted to regular.

The brilliance of Segel's performance is the occasionally instant shifts in tone.  He is intimidating one moment and pitiable the next.  His Eric is an insecure loser who works at a local copy shop with his two sidekicks (David Krumholtz and Kyle Gass) and is jealous of the college-enrolled main characters.  He obsessively crowds his girlfriend with non-stop phone calls and displays of affection like sending her calendars with his picture on them and "love collages" made during his time at work.  Yet, Segel always makes sure that we know that Eric is really just a misunderstood softie.  When he finally gets into a fight with Baruchel's character, he cries an apology after barely issuing him a shove resulting in a slight fat lip.  This sincerity, in turn, makes him both more disturbing and more likable.  Undeclared is where Jason Segel perfected his signature role.  He returns to the same well in How I Met Your Mother and his films Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man, but Eric will likely stand as Segel's crowning achievement.


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