Welcome to the Golden Age of Ryan Gosling

8 minute read

In Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 love-on-the-rocks heartbreaker Blue Valentine, Ryan Gosling plays a husband and father, Dean, who appears to be nothing but an annoyance to his wife, Michelle Williams’ Cindy, a harried nurse. She hustles to get their young daughter out the door to school, even as Dean, relishing the role of the fun dad, turns breakfast into a game. “Let’s eat like leopards!” he suggests, dotting the kitchen table with raisins plucked from his daughter’s oatmeal bowl, which the two lap up with jungle-animal gusto. In a flashback we see a younger Dean who, in his job as a mover, has been charged with unpacking the belongings of a frail, elderly man who’s just been consigned to a nursing home. He removes plates, pictures, knickknacks from their wrapping with casual tenderness, aware that each item bears the fingerprints of a life. Plenty of gifted actors—Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Paul Newman—have cited Marlon Brando as an inspiration and an influence. But in the realm of the happenstance gesture—the absent-minded tug of a shirt collar, maybe, or a glance so fleeting the camera could almost miss it—Gosling may be Brando’s truest heir. The work he puts into his characters is translucent, evanescent; the result is a firefly flicker you feel lucky to catch.

Gosling, now 43, was around 30 when he made Blue Valentine. That movie came roughly six years after he broke through in the romantic weepie The Notebook, and four years after he’d earned an Oscar nomination for his disarming performance as a jauntily dissolute junior high school teacher with drug problems in Half Nelson. He would go on to play a daredevil motor-cyclist who turns to robbery to support his young son (The Place Beyond the Pines), the resolutely unflashy astronaut Neil Armstrong (First Man), and a futuristic LAPD officer in a sequel to one of the most-loved science-fiction movies of all time (Blade Runner 2049). His next project, recently announced, is Project Hail Mary, a space drama to be directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. But for now, Gosling is riding a breezy new wave of his own creation, having taken two roles in succession that might seem less serious or consequential but may in fact be the beginning of a golden age. Charm is hard to come by in 2024: most of us are exhausted just by making ends meet, when we’re not freaking out over a world that might be falling apart around our ears. The Ryan Gosling of 2024 is the antidote to all that. At a time when living often feels like plodding, he makes acting look like dancing.

Ryan Gosling as Colt Seavers in The Fall GuyCourtesy of Universal Pictures

In his new movie, The Fall Guy, Gosling plays Colt Seavers, a swaggering stuntman who breaks his back while executing a routine, if dangerous, maneuver. A few minutes earlier, he’d been flirting with cameraperson Jody Moreno, played by Emily Blunt—they’d fantasized about getting away, just the two of them, sitting “on a beach somewhere, wearing bathing costumes, drinking spicy margaritas and making bad decisions,” as Colt puts it, borrowing Jody’s British vernacular for the word swimsuit. Next thing he knows, he’s being hustled away on a stretcher; during his long recovery, he loses his mojo and ghosts Jody. Now she’s making her directorial debut in a sci-fi blockbuster being shot in Australia, and she’s requested Colt’s stunt skills—or so he’s led to believe. When he arrives on set, she wants nothing to do with him. Winning her back involves locating her movie’s star (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who has mysteriously gone missing.

Directed by longtime stunt performer David Leitch, The Fall Guy is about a guy with everything to prove, starring a guy with nothing to prove. After completing First Man, Gosling took a break from movies to spend time with his young family. (He’s married to actor Eva Mendes, and the two have pulled off the miraculous Hollywood feat of keeping their personal lives private.) He re-emerged in 2022 with The Gray Man, a Netflix action movie that practically nobody liked. And when early promo photos for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie were released, the internet couldn’t believe its collective Google eyes. There was Gosling as Ken, he of the featureless plastic groin, in blinding platinum hair and a cheesy jean vest with nothing but a polished chest underneath. He looked ridiculous. He looked amazing. And at the Oscars, when he reprised the movie’s best musical number, “I’m Just Ken”—an anthem of mingled self-regard and self-acceptance, with Gosling front and center in a secure-in-its-masculinity pink spangled suit—it seemed as if the movie gods had performed a miracle, for once turning this very square event into something you were glad you’d tuned in to watch.

Gosling, for now, can do no wrong, but those who have always loved him are neither surprised nor worried about a backlash. The truth is, we need Ryan Gosling more than he needs us. On April 13 he hosted Saturday Night Live for the third time, and in the week before, he confessed his nervousness to Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show. Doing live comedy on TV is unnerving; he feared he might crack up during a sketch. A few days later, of course he cracked up. During the show’s cold open, a variation on its popular alien-abduction-and-probing routine—featuring guest alum Kate McKinnon—he lost it when she proceeded to mime the aliens’ fascination with what he’d euphemistically referred to as his “troll nose.” When Gosling laughs in the middle of a bit, it’s a joyous, conspiratorial event. And when he breaks character, the hatchling inside that cracked shell is just Gosling. Within a week, it became the most watched episode of SNL on Peacock. How could we not be happy to see him? To get a glimpse of true movie stars as real people—and not fake real people, as they so often appear to be—is a rare delight.

Gosling as Ken in BarbieCourtesy of Warner Bros.

Gosling’s character in The Fall Guy, on the other hand, is nothing like you or me. He’s a professional who gets paid to be set on fire, to drive cars that roll over so many times it’s surprising there’s any metal left on them, to surf atop speeding trucks while chopping the air with his cool karate moves. The movie is an ode to all the guys—and, ostensibly, women, though there are no obvious stuntwomen in the film—who take hard knocks to make stuff look real on film. (Gosling performs a few stunts in the movie himself, including a 12-story drop down the side of a building, which, he has said, terrified him.) The Fall Guy is so packed with stunts that it’s likely to leave you stunt-drunk. It’s also tremendous fun.

And although Gosling has made comedies before (like The Nice Guys, from 2016, with Russell Crowe, which in the years since its release has been recognized, correctly, as a work of genius), The Fall Guy is his first time as a proper romantic-comedy lead—and even then, this is hardly a typical romantic comedy, given its overarching obsession with guys’ leaping from great heights, driving at insane speeds, and dangling from helicopters in flight.

But you couldn’t ask for more from the frisson between Blunt, one of the finest comic actors we’ve got, and Gosling, who doesn’t so much play against her as open a portal for her fizzy wit to flow through. This is the kind of generosity a great actor can bring to comedy—it’s essential to listen and not just react. When Colt looks at Jody, even in her angriest moments—even when she punishes him by forcing him to do a challenging man-on-fire stunt over and over again—his lovesickness pours out of him like an awkward blessing. There are little things he does, both to tease her and to convey an affection he can’t contain, like instinctively pulling up the slider on the big, unflattering sun hat she’s wearing to protect her from the Australian sun, so it’s snug at her chin. She hates this; but she sort of loves it—you can tell. We live in an era of too much entertainment: in addition to movies, there’s more TV than most of us can keep up with, and not all the shiny things vying for our attention are trustworthy. But there’s nothing about Gosling the actor, or even Gosling the movie star, that feels false or fake. He offers us pleasure instead of mere fleeting distraction. And probably not even he realizes how rare that is.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com