Take One: Live! (2007)
Building on her dramatic work in We Own the Night the same year, Mendes took on another (semi) serious role, one deviously tinged with delicious black comedy, as TV executive Katy in Bill Guttentag’s Reality TV mock-doc Live! Perfectly styled in sharp attire and a coffee ‘to-go’ in hand, Mendes' Katy is ambitious, ruthless and most likely hollow on the inside. She has grand ideas. One of them kick-starts Live!’s plot: six members of the public will play Russian roulette live on air; the sole survivor is the winner. Her flippant excuse, while delicately biting into a strawberry:
Hey, I didn’t invent the game, I’m just making it hip again.”
Katy’s the kind of person who thinks that if all of life – including death – isn’t caught on camera it’s not worth living. And she doesn’t want ratings lower than her morals - to her it’s not lives at stakes but viewing figures. She’s the kind of corporate cannibal who caresses a hefty golf club whilst listening to her staff’s TV pitches. But also, quite ironically, has a poster for La Dolce Vita behind her office desk. She’s a vile creature of business, hungry enough to have Sigourney Weaver’s Katherine Parker in Working Girl for breakfast and Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen in Network for lunch. (Apparently Network is personal favourite film of Mendes’, one which served as her inspiration for this part.) Mendes’ Katy is essentially the dark centre of this goading morality exercise. It’s a performance so exacting, so attuned to the film’s intentions and compulsively watchable, that Mendes’ dramatic capability can’t be called into doubt. Does Katy get her way? Or does she get her comeuppance? Tune in to find out...
Take Two: Hitch (2005)
Mendes’ role in Hitch is essentially just another female rom-com lead. She plays Sara Melas, a fiery New York reporter who could "find dirt in a snowstorm" and is eager to make a mark. It's the familiar romance and career-yearning model outlined by Hollywood scribes from countless Heigl, Hudson, and SHP vehicles.
Interestingly, and rather questionably, the filmmakers original plan to cast a black or white actress opposite Will Smith was apparently deemed too risqué for audiences; Mendes, of Cuban descent, was seen as an “apt” compromise. But, whatever the contentious casting issue provided her with the part, Mendes is a fine comic presence and does better work than the film deserves. She exchanges some snappy one-liners with ‘date doctor’ Smith over cocktails, Walkie-Talkies and the engine noise of Jet Skis on their dates. They get romantically entangled despite the fact that he accidentally kicks her in the face and nearly fudges his chances with her. But instead of the usual quirky pratfalling and glam posing, Mendes stands out as a more individual and in-control contemporary heroine. The disregard for romantic lead norms (plus extraneous character tics like the Beatles tee, casual swigging from beer bottles and refusal to play dumb) goes a fair way in making her stand out as different from the shopworn crop. The sass and vigour she gives to the role are somewhat refreshing and the personable touches are uniquely her own.
Take Three: Last Night (2010)
Though she's worked with the likes of Adam McKay (The Other Guys), Frank Miller (The Spirit), John Singleton (2 Fast 2 Furious) and the Farrelly Brothers (Stuck on You), Mendes is racking up quite a nifty under the radar track record with a more lauded set of names: James Gray (We Own the Night), Werner Herzog (Bad Lieutenant) and, currently, Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines) and Leos Carax (Holy Motors). She’s building a screen persona that proficiently flits between genre outings and arthouse endeavours. This continued in first-time director Massy Tadjedin’s relationship drama Last Night, which saw Mendes as Laura, a work colleague of Sam Worthington’s Michael, who travels with him to Philadelphia on a business trip whilst his wife Joanna (Keira Knightley) cosies up to ex-lover Alex (Guillaume Canet). Mendes plays well with Worthington and she shows a more fragile, nuanced side to her acting. More than merely ‘the other woman’, Mendes gives her familiar part a singular tender gravity in her handful of scenes. Over one night Laura and Michael gradually flirt their way from drink to drink to hotel pool, then into each other’s affections.
Much of the film concentrates on Knightley’s plot, so Mendes (and Worthington) have less screen time to deliver their characters' emotional states. Despite her adulterous goal, Laura never comes across as shallow or contemptible thanks to the way Mendes shades in Laura’s life. She’s subtly convincing throughout, but it’s in the pool scene wherein she recalls an instance from her past detailing her then-lover’s infidelity and subsequent fate that she cements her performance as genuinely, quietly astounding. With her thoughtful closeup the next morning after things have perhaps gone a step too far -- is she crestfallen or liberated? -- Mendes signs her performance off with a minor heartbreaking echo. (I wrote more about Last Night at Dark Eye Socket upon the film's UK release last year.)
Three more films for the taking: Training Day (2001), Trust the Man (2006), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2010)