Robert Pattinson, the smouldering star of the Twilight franchise, is the most besieged heartthrob on the planet, and you can’t blame him for being embarrassed by the adulation. He acts as if he’s been confused with someone else—which is true, in the sense that his fans seem to have him hopelessly mixed up with his Byronic character, the vampire Edward Cullen. He can’t leave his hotel room without being mobbed by teenage girls. Last week, when he showed up for a taping of The Daily Show, the screams from the teenage audience reduced Jon Stewart’s high altar of smart satire into The Ed Sullivan Show waylaid by Beatlemania. Which Pattinson seemed to find no less ludicrous than his host. But the more he sloughs off the attention with that twitchy, self-deprecating English charm, the more charismatic he seems. He’s Hugh Grant trapped in the body of a young Brando.
In an age of carefully groomed celebrity, Pattinson is a rare thing: the self-effacing superstar. The 23-year-old actor has good reason to feel sheepish. All we’ve seen him do is pose as an oddly chivalrous vampire in a couple of jejune vampire movies. There’s no denying his screen presence, and it looks like there may be a pretty good actor lurking behind the pretty face. But as his fame outstrips his work, he must feel pressure to prove it.
Now we can see Pattinson tackle a (somewhat) more serious role in Remember Me. Directed by Allen Coulter (Hollywoodland), it’s a more mature movie than Twilight, and his character is painfully mortal, but it’s still a romance. Despite some promising romantic comedy that bubbles up as boy meets girl, it soon gives way to earnest drama. With a backstory rooted in tragedy, the film is set in New York in the summer before Sept. 11, 2001. Which means someone is on a collision course with destiny: tears before bedtime.
But Pattinson gets to relax into the role of a leading man who seems a lot like himself, if celebrity interviews are to be believed—a shambling overgrown adolescent with a messy room and a big heart. As Tyler, the estranged son of a callous tycoon (Pierce Brosnan with a Brooklyn accent), he’s a harmless wastrel. And he spends the first act with his Adonis features cut and bruised from a nightclub brawl. On a dare from his roommate, Tyler tracks down the daughter of the policeman (Chris Cooper) who arrested him, and talks her into a date without revealing the connection. Ally (Emilie de Ravin) is a college student who has her own issues with her dad, a hard-boiled cop from Queens. Tyler and Ally meet, cute and romantic repartee ensues, and for a while the movie comes alive—until family secrets emerge and the, uh, healing begins. Pattinson and his frisky co-star have good chemistry, but they’re stuck on a narrowing road to cheap sentiment.
Pattinson may seem cut out for an iconic role as a rebel without a cause, but these days it’s not easy for a heartthrob to find that kind of heft in a Hollywood movie. Brando exploded out of the gate fully formed, as a matinee idol with gravitas in A Streetcar Named Desire (1954). James Dean led a revolution in ennui with his film debut, East of Eden (1955). And Warren Beatty ignited his career as a leading man in the potent melodrama of Splendor in the Grass (1961), his first film. All three movies became classics and all, coincidentally, were directed by Elia Kazan.
So what’s a renegade heartthrob to do in an era where romance, not just sci-fi, is ruled by formula, and where the actors are so much better than the movies? Like Brando and Dean, Pattinson is an insouciant sex symbol with an alluring sensitivity, but Twilight is no Splendor in the Grass. Until he won the Hollywood lottery, he felt like a misfit—ever since landing his first serious stage role in London’s West End, and being fired before opening night. He tended to get cast as weirdos, from the vile Alec in a stage version of Tess of the d’Urbervilles to the young Salvador Dali in the film Little Ashes. Now he’s like a rock star without a band.
While he waits for a mentor to rescue him from the teen hordes—the way Martin Scorsese adopted Titanic’s Leonardo DiCaprio—Pattinson is making some bold choices. Co-starring with Uma Thurman, he’ll indulge in some dangerous liaisons as a Paris womanizer in Bel Ami, a film saturated with steamy sex scenes. A virtuous vampire needs to rough up his image. He’s also starring in Unbound Captives, a low-budget western in which he speaks mostly in Comanche. That’s one way to leave your fans in the dust.