Did you know Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lopez are the same age? At 45 — separated by only a few months — both have built substantial, lasting careers on the big screen. But, despite their relative international recognition — and perhaps owing to their early status as romcom lynchpins — neither has been historically regarded as a particularly strong dramatic actress. And, yet, they keep trying, each nailing and driving home a notable, non-sweetheart role every few years or so. As it happens, both Jennifers have dramatic films coming to theaters this weekend: Cake, Aniston’s stripped down story of painkiller-assisted grief and Lopez’s The Boy Next Door, a lusty May-December romance elevated to Fatal Attraction levels. We’ll take a look at how these very different films are poised to fare a little later. But, first, a mostly arbitrary comparison of Aniston and Lopez’s occasionally career defining dramatic roles.
THE EARLY YEARS
Friends may be one of the world’s most beloved situation comedies, but the show certainly cemented Aniston into the fairly restrictive role of lovable comedic actress. While Aniston was tangoing with David Schwimmer on the small screen and trying to escape the nightmare stank of Leprechaun, Lopez had both literally and figuratively hopped onboard the Money Train with two of America’s fastest rising stars: Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.
In the mid-to-late ‘90s, Aniston’s romcom mettle was strong, bolstered by light fare like She’s the One, Picture Perfect, and Object of My Affection. But, in the “serious actress” lane, Lopez pulled away far and fast, securing the coveted role of international icon Selena in the 1997 film of the same name. Anaconda (1997) might be Lopez’s Leprechaun, but that very same year she starred with Sean Penn in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. A year later, opposite future leading man of the universe George Clooney in Steven Soderbergh’s much-beloved Out of Sight, Lopez had already established herself as a tough and sultry leading lady with undeniable acting chops.
Lopez kicked off the last decade in a big way. The Cell wasn’t perfect, but it was a spectacle, and the former In Living Color fly-girl was right at the center of it. Aniston kind of limped in, once again playing arm candy to some oaf — in this case, Rock Star’s Mark Wahlberg. J-Lo may have spent 107 minutes lounging around the mind of a serial killer in blood-red neo-goth fetish-wear, but nothing in that film reaches the cringe-inducing hokeyness of Rock Star’s dancefloor threesome.
Having achieved extreme likability during an era when the romantic comedy was still considered a living, breathing, lucrative genre, Jennifer Lopez inevitably and aggressively entered the fray with The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, Monster-in-Law, and the widely panned Gigli. Wisely, she kept a foot in the thriller arena with Angel Eyes and Enough — the latter eventually becoming something of a campy, cult favorite. During this height of her stardom, Lopez attempts to continue working with high profile auteurs – director Kevin Smith on Jersey Girl and Lasse Hallström on the unabashedly saccharine An Unfinished Life – did not go over so well.
Aniston started the 2000’s playing lovable sidekick to renown funny-men like Jim Carrey (Bruce Almighty) and Ben Stiller (Along Came Polly), but seemed to deliberately retreat from that particular tint of rose-colored spotlight as the decade progressed. The Good Girl (2002) was her first noticeable foot into the world of cred — followed by Derailed, Friends with Money, and Management. I’d argue that Aniston’s turn opposite Vince Vaughn in the underrated The Break-Up is her most compelling dramatic performance to date (having not yet seen Cake). Alas, her other such gambits didn’t quite keep pace. She closed out the decade with The Switch and Bounty Hunter, clearly headed back to the box office safety of male-centered couplings.
Both actresses have been relatively quiet for the first half of the decade. Aniston has clearly settled into the position of comedic arm candy – having already completed two installments of the Horrible Bosses franchise. Lopez’s most dramatic turn thus far has been going head-to-head with Jason Statham. Her The Boy Next Door looks to be a trifle of salacious hype that pits her against some dude from Pretty Little Liars. Aniston’s Cake, on the other hand, was garnering Oscar buzz… until the actress’s no muss-no fuss performance was snubbed by the Academy last week. Next Door may rack up at the box office, as sex sells and J.Lo sells it better than anyone else. But, surrounded by heavyweights like Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, and Anna Kendrick — Oscar nod or not — it’s clear that Aniston is bucking for something a bit more challenging…at least this time around.