Making the jump from sitcom lead to film star is tricky — just ask former Friends stars David Schwimmer, Matt LeBlanc, Courteney Cox Arquette, Lisa Kudrow, and Matthew Perry, all of whom have found that the big screen can be a rather inhospitable place. But there’s an exception for every rule, and although her filmography is not without its share of failures (Love Happens, anyone?), Jennifer Aniston has shown an impressive ability to balance commercial hits (The Break-Up) with critical winners (The Good Girl). With her latest effort, the action comedy The Bounty Hunter, hitting theaters this weekend, we took the opportunity to look back at the ten best-reviewed films from Hollywood’s favorite Friend. It’s Total Recall time!
Cool, high-concept idea aside, Bruce Almighty isn’t a movie that tries to do anything out of the ordinary — it represented a return to safely top-grossing comedic form for Jim Carrey, who reunited with his Ace Ventura director Tom Shadyac, and both Morgan Freeman (who played God) and Jennifer Aniston (who played Bruce’s cutely exasperated girlfriend, Grace) played strongly to type in their supporting roles. Still, what works often works for a reason, and Bruce Almighty‘s outlandish $484 million gross demonstrated that sometimes, people just want to see their favorite stars do the stuff they’ve done well before. Most critics found Almighty less than heavenly, but that’s often been true of Carrey’s comedies — and some scribes found the humor in this tale of an ordinary guy who gets to run the universe while God’s on vacation, including Bill Clark of From the Balcony, who wrote, “Bruce Almighty is the kind of movie that Jim Carrey should stick to.”
Several months before Will & Grace kicked off its lengthy run, Aniston co-starred in the somewhat similarly themed The Object of My Affection, about a social worker who impulsively offers to rent a room to a new acquaintance (Paul Rudd) — and then proceeds to fall in love with him despite knowing he’s gay. It might sound like fairly standard rom-com stuff, with a potentially offensive twist — or it might just remind you of plot strands from My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Next Best Thing — and a number of critics did indeed dismiss Affection as, to quote Boxoffice Magazine’s Kristan Ginther, “forgettable.” For a surprising number of other writers, though, The Object of My Affection was simply too charming to resist. As the Boston Phoenix’s Peter Keough begrudgingly wrote, “When confronted with a film as relentlessly PC and romantically feel-good as The Object of My Affection, you eventually have to succumb.”
One of Aniston’s earliest screen roles came courtesy of this small production, written and directed by Tiffanie DeBartolo. DeBartolo’s father was once an owner of the San Francisco 49ers, so it’s probably unsurprising that Dream for an Insomniac takes place in the City by the Bay — and given that this was the heyday of the chatty indie flick featuring quirky, gorgeous twentysomethings, it also shouldn’t surprise you that, in the derisive estimation of New York Times critic Stephen Holden, Dream “suggests a pale shadow of Armistead Maupin’s Tales From the City.” It never saw wide release, and never really developed much of an audience on DVD, but for critics like TV Guide’s Maitland McDonagh, it represented “A slight, sleekly polished debut feature propelled by a kinder, gentler Swingers vibe” — and besides, it offers film fans a glimpse of Ione Skye and Mackenzie Astin moving into Parker Posey and Craig Sheffer territory.
To her credit, Aniston has played few of the ever-plentiful “supportive girlfriend” roles over the course of her career — but when you’re faced with the opportunity to grab second billing in a movie where Mark Wahlberg plays a working-class stiff who hits the big time, it’s hard to say no. Regrettably, 2001’s Rock Star wasn’t a Boogie Nights-sized hit, either with critics or the aging heshers who might have appreciated the way its storyline mirrors Judas Priest’s trendsetting decision to pluck its new lead singer from the ranks of a tribute band; still, plenty of writers raised their lighters to this inspirational drama, which returned Wahlberg to the arenas he hadn’t occupied since his days fronting the Funky Bunch — and gave formerly chart-topping hair metallurgists like Jason Bonham and Steelheart’s Miljenko Matijevic something to do in the bargain. Zertinet’s Steve Snyder was one of Rock Star‘s most ardent supporters, writing, “Just as it should be falling apart, its melodrama becomes more touching than ever, ultimately shaping a film about much more than any band and more poetic than any song on the radio.”
Cute dogs and small children in the cast tend to be pretty solid indicators of a movie’s willingness to pander, and 2008’s Marley & Me has both — right down to a cuddly, bow-wearing puppy on the poster. But instead of ladling cheap sentiment on audiences, this adaptation of John Grogan’s memoir showed a surprising level of restraint and sensitivity, winning praise from critics and tugging filmgoers’ heartstrings all the way to a nearly $250 million gross (and a Teen Choice Award for Bromantic Comedy!). Though they were regularly upstaged by the titular yellow lab, Aniston and co-star Owen Wilson held their own, thanks to a script that allowed them to show a married couple growing together and making important transitions over time. As William Goss of Cinematical put it, “I’m fairly sure that the book and the film shared a common goal — to make its audience sit, stay, laugh, cry, then move on — and at those modest aspirations, the movie succeeds.”
In 1996, Edward Burns was coming off The Brothers McMullen, Jennifer Aniston was riding Friends madness to a film career, and Cameron Diaz was, well, Cameron Diaz — taking those three and putting them in a movie with a Tom Petty soundtrack should have been a recipe for instant success. Alas, She’s the One went down as one of the more resounding commercial flops of the season, despite generally positive reviews and a likable cast that also included go-to crusty dad John Mahoney. As critics noted, One‘s storyline, which focused on the romantic dithering (and fraternal squabbling) of two New York brothers, bore more than a passing resemblance to McMullen, and although there are worse things than being compared with a Sundance winner, it wasn’t quite the coming out party Burns must have been hoping for. Still, the experience provided Aniston with her first film role since 1993’s Leprechaun, and the drama moved scribes like Aisle Seat’s Mike McGranaghan, who called it “A brilliant — and much misunderstood — romantic comedy.”
A fair amount of the promotion for Friends with Money involved pictures of Aniston in the French maid outfit her character wears, but titillating stills aside, this feature from Lovely and Amazing writer/director Nicole Holofcener offered viewers an uncommonly smart and surprisingly deep take on female friendships and the way money can affect our relationships with one another. Not blockbuster material, obviously, but with a cast that included Aniston, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand, and Joan Cusack, as well as a typically sharp Holofcener script, Money was a low-key winner with most critics, including Karina Montgomery of Cinerina, who wrote, “If you are a woman, or if you love one, you should see it. You will see yourself somewhere, as with all her movies, and it will change the way you see yourself as well… Holofcener understands us better than we admit we understand ourselves.”
All six Friends stars tried their hands at film careers in the ’90s, and while none of them were lucky enough to find features that eclipsed their television work, Aniston surfaced in theaters most regularly — at least in part because she seemed less concerned with finding star vehicles than simply signing on for the best possible scripts. Case in point: Her supporting turn in Office Space, the Mike Judge cult classic that crashed and burned in theaters in 1999, only to rise from the ashes on DVD. Aniston’s scenes as a put-upon waitress in a thinly disguised version of T.G.I.Friday’s may have served chiefly to give Ron Livingston something to do when he wasn’t plotting to destroy his corporate overlords, but they underscored Judge’s hilarious contempt for the vagaries of workplace culture, and reminded us that Aniston’s comic timing was just as sharp on the big screen. Wrote Jeff Vice of the Deseret News, “Anyone who thinks moviegoing can’t be a cathartic experience should see Office Space.”
After paying her dues in a series of relatively thankless rom-coms and minor roles, Aniston earned her first chance to carry a movie with The Good Girl, a quiet, sometimes uncomfortably downcast drama from director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, the creative team behind Chuck & Buck. As the aptly named Justine Last, a discontented retail clerk in a small Texas town, Aniston tamps down her natural beauty and comic effervescence to reveal dramatic chops that surprised anyone who still thought of her as Rachel from Friends. The plot eventually stumbles into some melodramatic places, and no matter how ordinary they’re made to look, Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal don’t really look like small-town losers, but The Good Girl had some poignant things to say about the weight of fading dreams — and the value of responsibility. As Josef Braun of Edmonton’s Vue Weekly noted, “Something in this film sticks to you more than you think it will while you’re watching it. And I think that something is the superb, jarringly resonant central performance by Jennifer Aniston.”
Before he was the guy who brought you The Incredibles and Ratatouille, Brad Bird was the young director behind one of the most sadly undeserved animation flops of the ’90s: The Iron Giant. Adapted from Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel, with additional input from producer Pete Townshend, whose 1989 song cycle The Iron Man was inspired by the book, Bird’s film captivated its undersized audiences with its endearingly retro look and a Tim McCanlies screenplay that beautifully captured the essence of Hughes’ story about the unlikely friendship between a boy and a giant robot in 1950s Maine. As the boy’s mother, Aniston joined a strong (and refreshingly superstar-free) voice cast that included Harry Connick, Jr., Christopher McDonald, John Mahoney, and Vin Diesel (as the Giant, natch). If you’re one of the many who missed out on The Iron Giant when it was released, do yourself a favor and check it out on DVD — it is, in the words of Matinee Magazine’s Chuck Rudolph, “A wonderfully made and emotionally touching film that takes its place next to Dumbo and Pinocchio as one of the three or four greatest animated films ever made.”