Mainstream Monday: The Art of the Smarmy Jerkface


If you think Passion of the Christ is a foreign language film…If you think a Carey Mulligan is something you mark on a golf scorecard…If Domino is your favorite Quentin Tarantino movie, Mainstream Monday is the place for you! In Mainstream Monday we leave the “art” to the critics and discuss what the “other” 90% of movie fans are watching. It’s a celebration of the modern, the mainstream and far too often, the mediocre. This week we’re discussing…film’s smarmiest jerkfaces.

Being a “smarmy jerkface” is an art. Not everybody can pull off that perfect blend of charm and condescension, but when an actor really gets it right, it almost always results in an unforgettable character. You know the type: their hair is either slicked back or perfectly coiffed (depending on the decade); they look down on a main character or hero without a hint of pity, guilt or self-awareness. Whether you love them or love to hate them, the smarmy jerkface has been a go-to character in comedy for decades now and it doesn’t appear they’ll be going anywhere soon. At least we can take solace in the fact they usually get their comeuppance at some point in the film. What follows is a list of some of my favorite egotistical jerks in recent mainstream movies. Read, enjoy and don’t be a jerk…leave a comment!

The King of the Jerkfaces - Chevy Chase - Fletch; Caddyshack; every role, ever.

Let’s start this list off right with the ultimate smarmy jerkface: Mr. Chevy Chase. We bow down before the sheer audacity of his unflappable ego. No one can play an entitled jerk like Chevy Chase. If you’re of the opinion that this is because Chevy’s persona on screen is an extension of his personality off of it, I won’t argue with you. For whatever reason, Chevy is blessed with a gift of injecting his characters with just enough charm to give their ego a pass. My favorite example? Without question it has to be Fletch. Fletch is the James Bond of the print industry and Chevy’s the perfect man to play him. Whether he’s chasing leads, bedding beauties or avoiding his ex-wife, Fletch’s smirk never wavers.

Rob Lowe - Wayne’s World; Tommy Boy; Pretty much life in general.

If Chevy’s the King, the next two entries on this list are a tie for a very close second place. In Wayne’s World Rob Lowe further defines the jerkface character with his recruitment of Wayne and Garth. Feigning fandom for their long-running local access show, Lowe’s greasy Benjamin Kane smiles while taking Wayne’s beloved program and twisting it into a cotton candy version of itself, all the while moving in on Wayne’s girl Cassandra, the hot bassist and lead singer of Crucial Taunt. I have a hard time separating Lowe from this kind of role because he’s just so darn good at it.

James Spader - Pretty in Pink

Another performer who is basically inseparable from this type of role, at least as far as I’m concerned, is James Spader. If he’s not playing a sexual deviant, he’s playing a smarmy jerkface. And sometimes he’s both. But never more so than in the role of Steff in Pretty in Pink. If you can have a name like Steff and still rule a school, you’re definitely working some social magic. In lieu of trying to describe this role myself, I’m going to turn it over to the IMDB character description, which pretty much sums it up perfectly: “A handsome, chain smoking, rich preppie with a penchant for parties and suits.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Adam Scott - Step Brothers

With a little brother like Derek (Adam Scott), it’s no surprise that Will Ferrell’s Brennan is never able to muster the confidence to leave home and set out on his own. Derek is a smiling, conniving jerk who has kicked his brother around for years. At family get-togethers Derek just can’t resist twisting the knife. Unfortunately (or fortunately), he has no idea his wife (the glorious Kathryn Hahn) has the hots for Dale (John C. Reilly). It’s only when Derek is exposed to Brennan’s “magnificent” singing voice that his years of hubris wash away and he remembers the brother he loves.

Jason Schwartzman - Funny People; Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Schwartzman is always hilarious, and his role as Seth Rogen’s “marginally famous” roommate Mark Taylor Jackson in Funny People is no exception. Having found a tiny amount of success in the sitcom Yo Teach!, Jackson has pretty much decided the world is his, and that world includes the girl Rogen is (very) slowly making a move on. Jackson sleeps with Rogen’s girl (Aubrey Plaza) simply because he figured he had given him enough time to make his move. Besides, why would she end up with a lowly stand-up when she can get with a guy who has his own TV show, right?

Will Arnett - Hot Rod; 30 Rock; Arrested Development; etc.

Arnett is another who excels at playing characters that are absolutely despicable, yet impossible to hate. Whether it’s competing with Alec Baldwin in “talking like this” competitions on 30 Rock or performing horrible magic tricks on Arrested Development, Arnett is adept at portraying entitled, arrogant jackasses who offer little value to society. He kicks this character up about thirty notches in Andy Samberg’s underrated Hot Rod, playing Isla Fisher’s walking movie cliche of a boyfriend: Jonathan. He pounds vitamin waters, rocks out to chumba wumba, openly hits on other women in front his own, and drives a stupid, way overrated red Corvette. Like, brand new red Corvettes are, like, so overrated…

Andrew Keegan - 10 Things I Hate About You; Independence Day

I had to look up his name, but when I started putting this list together his face was one of the first to flash into my mind. Keegan’s Joey Donner, the underwear-modeling, penis-on-face-drawing douchebag, rules the school in 10 Things I Hate About You, and his ego is basically the source of everything that happens in the entire plot. Sure the film has Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and turned Heath Ledger into a face people recognized, but Joey is by far my favorite character. And as a bonus we got thirty seconds of smarmy Keegan screentime in Independence Day…which he promptly uses to try and talk a girl into having sex with him in his truck. Y’know, since the world is going to end and she’s probably about to die anyway. Classy.

Paul Walker - She’s All That; All the Fast & Furiouses

Another high school jerk, Walker’s blond butthead in She’s All That is the moron who had a whole high school full of gross, unattractive girls for Freddie Prinze, Jr. to turn into a prom queen, but instead he chooses the obviously hot-in-a-weird-way Rachel Leigh Cook. One ounce of makeup, pair of contacts and skimpy red dress later and suddenly he’s scheming for the chance to take her to prom. But all ends well when he gets his ear drum blown out. In the Fast & Furious franchise Walker manages to be both the hero AND a smarmy jerkface at the same time, a feat few have been able to duplicate. For examples of that phenomenon, check the next few entries on this list.

Sean Connery, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, etc. - James Bond

James Bond may be one of the all-time great action heroes, but the guy is an ego-maniac. Of course, if you’re naturally gifted at every conceivable activity on the face of the Earth, maybe you have a right to be? Whether it’s fencing in front of Madonna or shooting a man with a harpoon while making out with a bikini-clad hottie on a beach, Bond has done it all. And most of it he’s done with a smirk on his face that says “I can take your woman any time I want to.” [In my brain his smile says it in a vaguely Scottish accent. But that’s just me.] It’s almost enough to make you want to punch him in the throat…if he wasn’t so freaking beautiful and able to break you in half with a flip of his wrist. Jerk.

Matthew Broderick - Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Whether he’s a figment of Cameron’s imagination or not, one thing about Ferris is for sure: he’s got the whole world wrapped around his finger and he knows it. The only time that smug little expression leaves Ferris’ face is when he’s making a mad dash to try and beat his parents home. Broderick wears the smarm well, giving us a character that we love, but at the same time forces us to sympathize with his poor overshadowed older sister.

Bradley Cooper - The A-Team; Limitless; Wedding Crashers; The Hangovers

Cooper is slowly working his way into the hearts of American movie-goers, even though he usually plays beautiful people who are pretty unlikeable. His character in The A-Team‘s name is “FACE”. How can you not want to punch this guy?! But somehow, someway that self-assured smile of his wins us over. You’ve won this round Cooper, but we know you’re an enormous jerk underneath it all. Or maybe you just play one in the movies. We may never know for sure.

Jared Leto - American Psycho; Fight Club

Who knew having better business cards than someone else could get you killed? Maybe it wasn’t so much the cards as it was how proud he was of himself for having them. Or maybe it was just because he was too beautiful. After all, that’s what got his face destroyed in Fight Club. If your smug smile is enough to get you chopped up or beat into a pulp in more than one movie, you’ve definitely earned a spot on this list.

Greg Kinnear - Mystery Men; Sabrina

Kinnear is gifted in that he can pull off the smarmy jerkface just as well as the next guy, but he’s also able to add a human quality in roles that allow him to play more down-to-earth. But he always shines brightest when he’s allowed to be an entitled selfish man-child. It’s the kind of ego that allows him to smile for the cameras, then glower in his limo in Mystery Men. Lamenting his old battles, Captain Amazing is so desperate to be on top again he’s willing to risk an entire city’s safety by releasing Casanova Frankenstein [best villain name ever], just to stroke his ego. The idea that this might result in his immediate capture and death never really crosses his mind, as he immediately waltzes right into an elaborate trap. The fact that his alter-ego is a billionaire lawyer named Lance Hunt makes it no surprise that Ben Stiller’s Mr. Furious has figured out the identity of the man behind the “mask”.

Matthew McConnaughey - Almost everything.

McConnaughey belongs with Chevy, Lowe and Spader at the top of the jerkface mountain, but with recent turns in films like The Lincoln Lawyer, Bernie and Killer Joe it seems like he’s finally trying to dig his way out of the pit of smarm he’s occupied for so long. That trademark smirking grin and long southern drawl will be hard to overcome, however. Best of luck to you sir.

George Clooney & Brad Pitt - The Ocean’s Trilogy; Burn After Reading

Two of Hollywood’s reigning men have successfully made the journey McConnaughey is just embarking on now. They’re able to exercise a little smarm when they need it (as seen most clearly in the Ocean’s trilogy and Burn After Reading), but have managed to avoid being pinned down to that persona. Here’s hoping for a few more jerkfaced outings for the pair.

Anthony Hopkins - Mission: Impossible 2

Odd choice I know, but if you’ve seen Mission: Impossible 2 you know exactly what I mean. Typically Hopkins plays someone who keeps their cool until it’s time to snarl and chew scenery. But in Mission: Impossible 2 it’s undeniable: Hopkins plays a total smarmy jerkface. His briefing of Ethan Hunt is nothing more than an opportunity for him to condescend to the Agent, working in smart-aleck barbs like, “Mr. Hunt this isn’t mission: difficult, it’s mission: impossible. Difficult should be a walk in the park for you.” In a film full of jump-the-shark moments, Hopkins’ uncredited turn is the sharkiest. ….Jumpiest?

Ryan Gosling - Crazy Stupid Love

We’ve got our eye on you young man. You’re edging dangerously close to this list. Proceed with caution.

So there you have it: some of my favorite love-to-hate-em smarmy jerkfaces of all time. Who are your favorites?


About Author

Host of Next Projection's ongoing Mainstream Monday series. I enjoy the occasional film, but most of the time I just watch movies. I'm no film student; just an old-fashioned homemade addict of cinema.