Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen: What’s So Bad About That?

Julia Roberts with Nathan Lane in Mirror Mirror

The last time I reviewed a movie with Julia Roberts in it, I rather unkindly compared her to Sylvester Stallone, who also had a flick opening that weekend (they are both, I observed, mostly about their eyes and lips). I felt badly afterward (but not very), because I’d really like to see Roberts in a good film, and she just doesn’t seem to make very many of those these days.

Larry Crowne? Eat Pray Love? Duplicity? When it comes to her choice of movie projects, America’s Sweetheart has of late been breaking America’s heart.

Will that change this weekend, when Roberts’ new movie, Mirror Mirror opens? We’ll see-although I’m hoping this retelling of the Snow White legend will be a bit more nuanced than the trailer makes it out to be.

But even if the movie doesn’t measure up, it’s clear it won’t be from a lack of effort on Roberts’ part. In the great tradition of drop-dead gorgeous villainesses-Disney’s animated Evil Queens and Michelle Pfeiffer’s live-action Catwoman in Batman Returns come to mind-Roberts’ bad girl seems to drip with sex-laced venom. The professional risk is clear: Although she’s proven herself to be a supremely gifted comic actress, it’s almost always been in the super-smart-girl-next-door context. Will audiences accept her as the baddest girl on the block?

Julia as Everywoman in Erin Brockovich

Glenn Close was already one of the screen’s most respected actors when she camped it up as Cruella DeVille in 101 Dalmatians. Perhaps not coincidentally, Close was turning 50 at the time, and Dalmations turned out to be a nice little booster rocket for her career. As Roberts approaches middle age (she’s 44), maybe she’s hoping for a similar lift.

Again, this line of inquiry inevitably leads us to the same sad place we were when I launched Movies for Grownups a decade ago: Why do we never have this conversation about guys? There’s George Clooney cruising past 50, his silver hair glistening in the best roles of his career. There’s Tom Cruise, getting the girl with a single flash of his 50-year-old dimples. And here’s Julia Roberts, arguably the biggest female star of her generation, slumming in a fairy tale.

Why is it that moviegoers insist that their great actresses resort to stunt casting or cartoon voiceovers-or worst of all, virtual professional hibernation until they get old enough to play sexy 60-year-olds? I used to pin all the blame on the studios, but I’m coming around to audiences being culpable, as well. And it’s nothing new: Clark Gable and Cary Grant were still playing romantic leads when their female contemporaries, like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, were reduced to shrieking their ways through cheap thrillers.

By all means, enjoy Julia as the Evil Queen in Mirror Mirror. But listen, right now she’s making a movie called Ausage: Orange County with director John Wells, who created one of the most insightful middle-age dramas of recent years, 2010′s Company Men. Do us all a favor: Make that one a hit, too, okay?