Okay, yes, at first glance, he’s not exactly an underdog: Jon Hamm is an extremely famous, extremely handsome man who spent seven years starring in one of the greatest TV shows of all time. He’s been nominated for a whopping 16 Emmys (and in 2015, he finally won one for his final season of Mad Men), and he was able to parlay his onscreen gravitas delivering ad pitches as Don Draper into a lucrative career doing voiceover work in commercials for brands like Mercedes-Benz and American Airlines. He has hosted Saturday Night Live three times and made cameos in 10 other episodes of the long-running sketch show, most recently last weekend, and he’s made such a habit of rubbing elbows with the funniest people in the business that Vulture once dubbed him “America’s sexiest comedy nerd.” A few years ago, an ugly hazing incident from his college fraternity days came to light, but after the actor addressed it by admitting he was “a stupid kid in a stupid situation,” we all turned our attention to whatever the next celebrity scandal was, and it barely made a dent in Hamm’s reputation; you know you’re leading a charmed life when your greatest public embarrassment is currently that there are entire online galleries of paparazzi photos that show off how well-endowed you are.
And yet, despite all that, it’s hard not to feel like he could be doing more. Hamm’s post-Mad Men career has for the most part failed to live up to its promise. He’s a talented actor with strong chops in both drama and comedy and a face that, as Liz Lemon put it on 30 Rock, “looks like a cartoon pilot.” How is he not an enormous movie star yet?
Hamm was in movies here or there during his run on Mad Men, of course, though none of any major consequence (his most notable during this time were a supporting role in Ben Affleck’s The Town in 2010 and a memorable cameo in Bridesmaids in 2011). His first film to come out after Mad Men wrapped — the one that would set the tone and signal to audiences and casting directors whether he’d be able to step out from the shadow of the TV show that made him a household name and become a bonafide Hollywood A-lister — was the 2016 action comedy Keeping Up With the Joneses, which bombed so badly it lost 20th Century Fox over $10 million. He was great the following year as the coked-out villain Buddy in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, a part written specifically for him, but that was still just a supporting role. Since then, his film career has largely been devoid of lead parts, save for the forgettable Beirut, which grossed roughly $7 million worldwide. (For perspective, Billy Eichner’s Bros, which made headlines this week for being a disastrous flop, grossed $4.8 million in just one weekend.) Instead, he’s been largely relegated to small parts here or there, turning up as an FBI agent in Richard Jewell or as the stern buzzkill Vice Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson in Top Gun: Maverick, whose entire job seems to be sporadically showing up for a few seconds to deliver commands so Tom Cruise’s Maverick can smirk and ignore them.
Instead of carving out a path for himself as a leading man, Hamm has spent the majority of his post-Mad Men career playing against type in TV comedies. His sitcom resume includes absurdly goofy guest turns as the handsome-but-hopelessly dumb Drew Baird (whose stupidity eventually leaves him with two hooks instead of hands) on 30 Rock and as the doomsday preacher Richard Wayne Gary Wayne, who held a group of women captive in his underground bunker on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Both roles earned him Emmy nods for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series, and he followed them up with memorable appearances in Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and a couple episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Having Hamm yell “A shanda!” at Albert Brooks upon discovering Brooks was hoarding toilet paper during the pandemic after pressing Larry David to give him some Yiddish words to work into conversation earlier in the season 11 premiere was a stroke of genius.)
Comedy has become his niche, perhaps by design after he spent the better part of a decade inhabiting the darkness of one of TV’s most iconic anti-heroes. He can deliver a joke, and he’s got plenty of charisma as himself in interviews and late-night talk show appearances. He seems like a natural for a career path similar to, say, a Cary Grant or a George Clooney, doing that “swashbuckling dapper guy who isn’t afraid to also look extremely goofy” thing in big-budget, screwball rom-coms or glamorous mysteries full of punchy dialogue. So why is he still slumming it in Progressive commercials, wasting his charm on Flo the Insurance Lady?
Confess, Fletch seemed like the perfect opportunity for him to showcase his leading-man skills and level up. The only problem? Barely anyone outside of a handful of critics — all of whom are singing its praises and scratching their heads over Paramount’s decision to not give it a major theatrical release — knows it exists. There’s been virtually no marketing whatsoever for the film, which sees Hamm taking over for Chevy Chase as investigative journalist I.M. Fletcher, and instead it was released direct-to-VOD on Sept. 16. It’s a funny, clever whodunit that even sees Hamm reuniting with his Mad Men co-star John Slattery (and watching those two trade witty one-liners is worth the $19.99 rental fee alone), and it wouldn’t have even gotten made if Hamm hadn’t given back 60 percent of his salary. In an ideal world, it’d be the first entry in a new franchise for him — after all, there are 11 Fletch books to pull from — or at the very least a stepping stone to other roles that properly showcase his talent. Instead, it’s been buried in the 2022 equivalent of the Blockbuster bargain bin.
That’s no fault of Hamm’s, of course. Studios don’t find comedies to be marketable these days, and since the pandemic, audiences are hesitant to schlep out to a theater for anything that isn’t a superhero movie or a horror film — the stuff that demands to be seen on the big screen. Everything else has by and large been relegated to streaming services, creating for more fractured viewing experiences and robbing us of the kind of zeitgeist-y, collective pop cultural landscape necessary for someone like Hamm to successfully make the leap from TV actor to Hollywood superstar. But how can he — or anyone else who isn’t currently attached to a Marvel property or named Timothée Chalamet — be expected to live up to his potential if studios won’t even give him the chance to flop? If Jon Hamm — again, that’s Jon Hamm, the guy with the chiseled jaw and the quick wit and the better part of a decade at the center of one of the most universally beloved shows of all time — is considered too risky to lead a major movie, who the hell isn’t? Mad Men was a once-in-a-lifetime role, but Hamm deserves a shot at a second act. Why won’t we let him have one?
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