1. Adam Sandler
Over the last decade, Adam Sandler’s film career has become as baggy and lazy as his on-screen wardrobe. Sandler typically rolls into his movies looking like he’s headed to a day by the pool—a premise that, with the addition of Kevin James and David Spade, may as well be an Adam Sandler movie. Of course, Sandler has little incentive to change—the $246 million gross of Grown Ups 2 certainly gives him no reason to try any harder—but the sporadic bright spots when he does try definitely show he’s capable of more. Staying away from kids would help: Since 1999’s Big Daddy, Sandler has increasingly paired his screaming man-child with actual children, and the influx of mawkish sentimentality has only made that act seem all the more formulaic. In Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People, he’s examined the dark side to that raging id, suggesting even he knows he’s barely scratching the surface of his talents, all while doing the movie equivalent of scratching his balls. Perhaps his upcoming role in Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children could help remind audiences—and Adam Sandler—what can happen when he puts a little more effort into it than picking out a fresh pair of shorts.
2. Lindsay Lohan
3. Amanda Bynes
Like so many child stars from the ’00s, both Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes have been through the proverbial wringer. They’ve been on drugs, on Twitter, on TMZ, and on trial, but have, in recent months at least, cleaned up and gone straight. While Lohan and Bynes undoubtedly need some time to get their Hollywood game faces back on—or off, if we’re talking about their weird lip injections and unfortunate plastic surgery—both could, in theory, make very real comebacks, because they’re both really funny. Bynes starred in a number of comedy-centric series before going rogue last year, and Lohan absolutely tore it up in Mean Girls. The key to either coming back would be the right project and a careful hand. Lohan’s tried to come back in hacky TV movies, and Bynes seems content to just get into fashion design school, but if both went the Winona Ryder route and started working with John Waters or Judd Apatow, they could take some smart comedic turns that land them on top once again.
4. Tom Sizemore
Tom Sizemore is the only actor on this list to have appeared in both Saving Private Ryan and the Insane Clown Posse vehicle Big Money Rustlas, which speaks to a weird career arc that has involved working with the best directors and the worst people (specifically Dr. Drew Pinsky on Celebrity Rehab). If Sizemore can keep his addictions under control and find a director willing to give him a chance—or another chance, since he’s worked with some of the greats—he could find himself a major presence again. The ideal role might be one that hits close to home, like a recovering drug addict in a Lisa Cholodenko movie. But he seems content to basically accept every script that he’s offered, including the new direct-to-DVD Behind Enemy Lines: SEAL Team 8, a sequel of sorts (the third) to the Gene Hackman/Owen Wilson movie.
5. Ryan Reynolds
There was a time when comparisons between Ryan Reynolds and that other Canadian heartthrob, Ryan Gosling, made sense. Both men’s careers were balancing acts between lighter fare and more independent work. In The Nines and Adventureland, Reynolds showed that he was a better actor than his rom-com roles suggested. But for the last four or five years, Reynolds seems to have moved entirely to voice acting in Dreamworks features or big-budget fiascos like Green Lantern or R.I.P.D. Reynolds is only 37, so he has plenty of time to turn his career around. Better yet, he may be making a conscious effort to do so this year: He’ll play the lead in Atom Egoyan’s next movie, The Captive.
6. Macaulay Culkin
Provided Macaulay Culkin actually wants to become popular again—and he presumably has millions of dollars in the bank, so that’s a big if—the former child actor and total weirdo could do it by playing to his strengths: He’d be a great creep. If Culkin were to hook up with Harmony Korine for some James Franco-style lothario/drug-dealer character, he could start making inroads back into the Hollywood elite. It seems a crime to say this, but if he took script-picking lessons from Jared Leto, he could even end up on the Oscar path at some point. Since both guys seem more interested in rocking than acting (Leto with 30 Seconds To Mars, Culkin with his pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band), maybe it’s a longshot.
7. Eddie Murphy
Like that party pal who became totally boring after having kids, Eddie Murphy went from being a guy who once cockily branded his stand-up as Raw to the mugging, farting face of family comedy. Granted, no one can play Axel Foley forever, but it says a lot about Murphy’s mindset that, when talk recently turned to making more Beverly Hills Cop, Murphy—the man who once suggested Bill Cosby have a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up—envisioned it first as a PG-13 movie about fathers and sons, before pitching it as a procedural on CBS. Still, Murphy’s recent turn in Tower Heist confirmed there’s still a slick wiseass buried beneath the silly faces and fat suits, and his Oscar-nominated dramatic turn in Dreamgirls revealed he still has untapped depths, even after all these years. He also stirred hope by avowing to Rolling Stone that he’s quitting family movies and even considering a return to stand-up. That, plus the news that the Brett Ratner-revived Beverly Hills Cop 4 is aiming for a “hardcore R,” suggests Murphy knows he needs to recapture some danger—and the excitement whenever it seems like he will confirms audiences are more than ready to see it.
8. Daryl Hannah
When Daryl Hannah first emerged in the 1980s, she didn’t show much technique or range as an actress, but she had such a commanding physical presence on screen, and was so easy to like, that in the right roles—an acrobatic killer doll-woman in Blade Runner, a romantic mermaid in Splash—her limitations didn’t seem to matter much. After fading over the course of the ’90s, Hannah showed a new level of depth and spark in a couple of John Sayles movies, Casa De Los Babys and Silver City, and a capacity for sadistic meanness in the Kill Bill films. Since then, she’s been spotted in such unlikely places as SyFy TV-movies and episodes of Hawaii Five-0. But over the years, Hannah has given signs of a restless intelligence: writing, producing, and directing a prize-winning short film and a 2002 video documentary about the research she did for a movie role as a stripper, as well as various video blogs. If only she could find a role that excited her, she might produce it herself and get it right, eliminating the studio middlemen.
9. David Caruso
David Caruso has already had one minor comeback, sandwiched in between two successes that ended up turning him into a pop-culture joke. When Caruso left NYPD Blue, fans felt so personally betrayed they rejoiced in the failure of his big movie vehicles, Kiss Of Death and Jade, though this weltschmerz only revealed how closely many people had felt invested in his NYPD Blue character. After starring in a handful of scarcely noticed movies and TV projects, Caruso gave a standout supporting performance in Proof Of Life and had a starring role in the low-budget horror film Session 9, which inspired a New York Times reviewer to congratulate him for returning from career purgatory showing “a little more technique and little less ego.” But Caruso disappeared into the lead role in a sure-shot TV hit, the Miami branch of the CSI franchise, which gave him a steady paycheck for 10 years but also left him caricatured as a dude who delivers dud one-liners while putting on his sunglasses. Now that the series is over, if Quentin Tarantino is looking for someone on whom to lavish one of his image-rehabilitation roles as an aging tough guy, he could do a lot worse.
10. Chris Klein
In 1999, the 20-year-old Chris Klein had a great year, making his movie debut in Alexander Payne’s Election and following that up with the smash hit American Pie. Unfortunately, his subsequent string of starring roles in such all-time stinkers as Here On Earth, Say It Isn’t So, and Rollerball cooled his name off faster than a polar vortex, and he attracted the wrong kind of attention in 2010, when his audition tape for Mamma Mia! went viral. Aside from the consistently wretched sequels to American Pie, Klein is currently most recognizable for playing the jerk boyfriend of the woman who’s the object of the hero’s desire in Wilfred, a role that makes fine use of his comedic gifts but wastes his considerable dreamy-goofball charm. Now that Klein is in his 30s and ready for mature roles, he deserves a big part in a romantic comedy that might give him the chance to once again show just how funny and likable a big, good-looking, maybe not-so-bright guy can be.
11. Brendan Fraser
In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that Brendan Fraser ever got as far as he did, considering the Canadian-American actor comes across as so nice on film that his pores practically ooze maple syrup. He was upstaged by the special effects in his biggest blockbuster vehicles, The Mummy and its sequel, and some of his choices of roles—Looney Tunes: Back In Action and the more recent, thoroughly reviled Furry Vengeance—have made it seem as if he was angling to become the new Dean Jones. But some of his other comedy vehicles, such as the dance sequence in Blast From The Past and the underappreciated Monkeybone, revealed a true wild streak, and at his peak popularity, he used his name to help get such risky projects as Bill Condon’s Gods And Monsters and the 2002 version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American made. As the idealistic but destructive title character of the latter film, he even tried to show that there might be something dark and scary lurking within his placid, nice-guy image, though at the time, he wasn’t able either to do full justice to the role or hold his own against Michael Caine. The next time a role like that is available, Fraser deserves a chance to show whether he’s since gotten seasoned—and hungry—enough to deliver.
12. Zac Efron
Zac Efron’s career has been on an upward trajectory since he debuted in the made-for-TV-movie High School Musical, so unlike the others on this list he doesn’t need to revitalize his career so much as figure out how to transition from teen heartthrob to respected performer. So far Efron’s mostly been cast as the pretty-boy lead in either romantic comedies (That Awkward Moment) or brooding romantic melodramas (Charlie St. Cloud, The Lucky One). And while Efron’s good looks make him a natural choice for male ingénue, he’s actually at his best when he’s allowed to be funny first and romantic second. Efron has surprisingly solid comic chops, which he’s gotten to highlight in his two best performances—in 17 Again and Hairspray. In both films Efron makes fun of his pretty-boy persona and gets to show off his goofy side and gift for physical comedy. If there’s a place for Efron to shine it’s musical comedy; even in the generic High School Musical series that launched his career, Efron rose above his co-stars with a decent voice, some impressive dance skills, and a whole lot of charm.
13. Robert De Niro
Odds are, anyone who thinks of Robert De Niro’s legacy these days focuses mostly on the highs: Taxi Driver, King Of Comedy, Midnight Run—basically every movie he appeared in from 1973 until the end of the century. This is for the best. A quick scan of De Niro’s career in the ’00s reveals a swamp of bad comedy, tedious drama, and continually lowered expectations. It’s not just that films like Righteous Kill, Killing Season, and Killer Elite are beneath the actor’s considerable gifts; it’s that De Niro's onscreen presence has gone from a master class in controlled tension and focus to a sort of sleepy uncle who doesn’t always seem to know where he is. What started as an apparent mercenary attempt to make some quick cash has turned into a decade-plus slump that threatens to turn one of cinema’s greatest actors into a walking echo of his former glory, without even the pleasure of, say, Laurence Olivier’s hammy final years. Hopefully a promised new collaboration with Martin Scorsese will turn the tide; no one wants the man who helped create Travis Bickle to go out playing second fiddle to Bradley Cooper.
14. Steve Martin
In 2010, a Steve Martin talk at New York’s 92nd St. Y turned into a microcosm of Martin’s latter-day career, when the crowd—hoping to see just a little of the anarchic, idiot-savant wit they loved—were instead driven to demand a refund, after Martin stuck firmly to a drily serious discussion of art. Despite the rather haughty response suggesting otherwise, no one’s demanding Steve Martin put an arrow through his head or make a sequel to The Jerk. (Please, God, don’t make a sequel—the Martin-less Jerk, Too was more than enough.) But the transition to the wryer, stuffier humor of Martin’s novels, plus his recent retreat into playing traditional bluegrass with his Steep Canyon Rangers, feels more and more like a self-indulgence tolerated by an increasingly restless crowd—especially as Martin’s movie career has become mired in broad family fare like The Pink Panther and Cheaper By The Dozen (along with their sequels) and gentle bores like It’s Complicated and The Big Year. Nevertheless, Martin continues to display a quick wit on Twitter, and his appearances on 30 Rock, his clever sparring with Alec Baldwin at the Oscars, and the occasional Saturday Night Live cameo show he can still be the funniest guy in the room when he wants to be. (Speaking of which, it’s been five years; isn’t it time for him to host SNL again?) The only question, as we shift here in our seats, is when he’ll want to be.
15. Christian Slater
The recent cancellation of ABC’s Mind Games reiterated a sad truth revisited almost annually: No one knows what to do with Christian Slater anymore. Since 2008, nearly every TV season has seen Slater star in some new, quickly doomed series—My Own Worst Enemy, The Forgotten, Breaking In—that only serves to remind that Slater still has something to offer, if someone could just figure out what that is. Meanwhile, his film career has similarly plateaued with roles in cookie-cutter action and horror fare like Bullet To The Head and Stranded. Yet the fact that directors on screens big and small keep trying confirms Slater still has an off-kilter energy few others can tap into. Perhaps his struggles as a leading man are because Slater works better in smaller doses: His Cheshire Cat twinkle is seemingly made for roles as the devil on the shoulder—and if a TV show could find a way to harness that, Slater could easily have a Rob Lowe-like resurgence. He can also be quite compelling when he allows his surface slickness to crack and reveal a manic desperation, as in 2007’s underrated He Was A Quiet Man, and there’s a great, middle-aged dramatic performance waiting there. Perhaps Slater would be wise to take the long-ago advice of his old friend Veronica Sawyer, and get cool guys out of his life once and for all.
16. Shia LaBeouf
Once the anointed of Steven Spielberg and star of several big franchises, Shia LaBeouf has of late embarked on a Quixotic campaign to assure everyone that he is no longer famous and to (maybe) apologize for stealing someone else’s work without attribution. While it’s certainly possible that this is all just a Joaquin Phoenix-style put-on, it’s perhaps more likely that LaBeouf hit a creative ceiling and prefers to go down in flames rather than quietly into that good night. Despite the identity crisis and intellectual thievery, his relative youth and blockbuster pedigree suggest he might yet become more than a poor man’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
17. Courtney Love
Known more for her work as a musician (and musician’s widow) than for her time in front of the camera, Courtney Love has displayed some legit acting chops in the past. She is super as Althea in The People Vs. Larry Flynt, and Love’s chemistry with Paul Rudd in the 1999 ensemble comedy 200 Cigarettes is weirdly palpable. For whatever reason, Love didn’t follow these successful roles up with anything more notable than a turn as Joan Vollmer Burroughs in the 2000 Kiefer Sutherland vehicle, Beat. Love made the news recently when she claimed to have tracked down the missing Malaysia Airlines flight. She didn’t, but there’s still hope of her salvaging the wreckage of a once-promising acting career if she can get it together.
18. Christopher Lloyd
It’s not like Christopher Lloyd never works or has a terrible career or anything. He turns up frequently in TV guest spots, and he’s in a number of films most years. But he usually turns up in a role deliberately designed to play off the image of him as Back To The Future’s Doc Brown or even Taxi’s Jim Ignatowski. Granted, those are two iconic characters, and it can be hard to find roles pitched at “oddball,” which is the usual tenor of the parts Lloyd has played. But Lloyd’s first major film role was in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, so he can play dramatic oddballs, too, not just goofy ones. Isn’t it just a little bit weird no one’s tapped into his character-actor side and turned him into the sort of reliable supporting player who livens up ensemble comedies and ambitious dramas, turning that into an Oscar nomination or two? Put another way: How has Christopher Lloyd’s career somehow never intersected with Wes Anderson’s?
19. Chevy Chase
Community was intended to be Chevy Chase’s big resurrection from years of bad movies and ignominy. Instead, the comedic legend’s stint on the show saw his character slowly being marginalized and ended with him finally quitting the series in its fourth season in such a way that the terms of his leaving included a clause that wouldn’t allow him on the set with the other actors anymore. In his interview with Alan Sepinwall, Community creator Dan Harmon said that Chase’s eventual marginalization perhaps had to do with how hard the hours of single-camera ensemble comedy can be, particularly if you’re not the series’ star. This is too bad, because Chase was a great part of Community’s ensemble in its first two seasons. Chase is never going to return to the height of his National Lampoon’s Vacation days; here’s hoping he can realize how great he is backing other stars up, at least if anyone in Hollywood will still work with him.
20. Rachael Leigh Cook
Is it wrong to want better for an actress because of an anti-drug PSA? Well, that’s how we feel about Rachael Leigh Cook. Sure, she’s been spirited (at best) in some of her film work—like She’s All That!—but we’re mostly just waiting for some enterprising director to realize how great she would be at destroying things with a piece of kitchenware. She could be the next big thing!
21. Mike Myers
On Saturday Night Live, Mike Myers was an energetic fountain of funny ideas, and after leaving the show, his movie career was off to an auspicious start. Wayne's World was one of the more successful SNL-spawned films, and So I Married An Axe Murderer wasn't a stroke of genius, but it had its charm. When Myers took four years off following Wayne's World 2, he came back with an inspired spoof of the James Bond films, and it seemed like we'd be getting a new dose of comedic brilliance from Myers every few years. Instead, we got sequel after sequel, with diminishing returns from both the Austin Powers and Shrek series. Myers’ only starring roles outside those two franchises were the grating Cat In the Hat, and his first original idea since the first Powers—The Love Guru, a film which only escaped being remembered as the worst movie of the decade because it was released a week before The Happening. So, how can Myers turn this trainwreck around? Take another four years off. Or however long it takes to come up with an idea that isn't a shameless cash-in and actually means something to him the way Wayne's World (based on his Canadian teenage years) and Powers (a tribute to his Dad's love of spy movies) did. Given material he's actually invested in, Myers could make something with the silliness and charm of his early work. And then, hopefully, not make a sequel to it.