With his starring role in the Marvel superhero blockbuster Ant-Man, Paul Rudd seems set to embark on a new phase in his career: action hero. But there’s a scene late in the movie when, caught kissing another character, his ex-con-turned-insect-controlling-good-guy Scott Lang starts to faux-blame the deed on his partner before gracefully skirting away. It’s a classic Rudd moment, and a reminder of what he brings to the table even when he’s playing a comic-book character.
What is that exactly, you ask? In general, his characters tend to be earnest and romantic, even when the cloak it under cynicism. There’s also a childlike quality in his performances, too – few things in contemporary comedy are more glorious than seeing Rudd cutting loose and indulging in goofy accents. Does he occasionally depart from that? Sure. But even then, he does it in fully self-aware fashion, and you get the feeling he’s making fun of the fact that he’s departing from it. In short, Paul Rudd never quite stops being Paul Rudd.
Some of his roles are Ruddier than other, however, so we’ve broken down his best-known parts (and some turns in a few under-the-radar gems), picked out their signature moments and rated them according to their sheer Ruddiness — the leading-man charm, the character-actor chops and the comedian’s ability to crack us up. (Never mind whether the movies are good, bad or ugly; we’re just looking at how much the role sticks to the actor’s strengths.) Ruddy or not, here we come.
Rudd is the love interest in Amy Heckerling’s update of Jane Austen’s Emma, set in a Beverly Hills high school — though for much of the film, we don’t know he’s the resident Mr. Right. Instead, as the granola ex-step-brother of our glamorous heroine Cher (Alicia Silverstone), the comedian is prickly for much of the film – their contentious relationship only becomes romantic later. But here’s where his casting pays dividends: The actor is so inherently likable that his innate decency shines through, despite Cher’s initial annoyance at him.
Most Rudd-ian Moment: This was very early on in his career, so he hadn’t quite developed into “Paul Rudd” yet, but his classic kiss with Silverstone is a perfect example of what makes him special. Though he’s been mostly a confident wiseass for most of the movie, his character suddenly gets nervous, stammering and fidgeting. You could tell he was being groomed for a romcom leading man — a notion he’d send up later in David Wain’s 2014 spoof They Came Together.
Rudd-ometer rating: 4
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
As Andy, a hunky, spacy counselor, Rudd spends most of this hilarious spoof of Seventies and Eighties summer-camp movies making out with his fellow actresses. But that’s part of the joke: Even at this early stage of his career, the man was gaining a reputation as a professional nice guy, and watching him go over-the-top playing a jerk is actually sort of adorable.
Most Rudd-ian Moment: Asked to pick up some food he’s tossed on the cafeteria floor, he pouts and flails like a petulant baby. His gestures are so extreme – like the world’s biggest geek trying to play a rebel – that it might be the funniest moment in the film.
Rudd-ometer rating: 4
The Chateau (2001)
Brothers Rudd and Romany Malco get entangled with the staff of a rambling, decaying French chateau that they’ve unexpectedly inherited. One’s a milquetoast nice guy (guess who?), the other is an ambitious shark intent on selling the place. Mildly chucklesome humor ensues as they disagree over what to do with their unlikely inheritance.
Most Rudd-ian Moment: In contrast to his brother, who indulges in mile-a-minute American slang, Rudd’s character keeps trying to speak French throughout, and making a fool of himself. It’s one of the better early examples of the indie version of the Rudd effect — he adds nice touches throughout without ever overshadowing the modest proceedings.
Rudd-ometer rating: 7
The Shape of Things (2003)
Neil LaBute’s caustic look at gender dynamics finds Rudd falling for a beautiful grad student (Rachel Weisz), then winds up (spoiler alert!) becoming the subject of her duplicitous art project/social experiment. It’s a comedy of manners that then turns into a humiliation-driven satire, which in turn becomes a dead-serious (and controversial) volley of symbolic gunfire in the battle between the sexes. But the actor is ideal for the part: That nice guy image, which serves him so well in his other films, gets interrogated here. Is he a bastion of male privilege, or simply a weak-kneed patsy, taken advantage of by a ruthless sociopath?
Most Paul Rudd-ian Moment: Rudd, working as a museum security guard, makes a dorky attempt to stop Weisz from defacing an antique Greek statue. After some awkward back-and-forth, he actually joins her in decrying the “shoddy craftsmanship” of the artwork, particularly in regards to how the sculptor has covered the subject’s penis.
Bonus Paul Rudd Moment: Rudd and Weisz also bond over the fact that he once helped her at the video store where he works a second job. The movie in question? The Picture of Dorian Gray – appropriate, because Paul Rudd, eerily, never ages.
Rudd-ometer rating: 6
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)
As field reporter Brian Fantana, one of the trio of alpha-male chauvinists who work alongside Seventies broadcaster Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), Rudd gets to toy with his persona again: He’s the last guy we might imagine acting like a boorish Neanderthal, which allows him to go whole hog with the mucho machismo. The Anchorman movies are comedies of exaggeration – and watching the mild-mannered Rudd go over-the-top is always a joy.
Most Rudd-ian Moment: His special cologne? “It’s called Sex Panther by Odeon. It’s illegal in nine countries. Yep, it’s made with bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.”
Rudd-ometer rating: 5
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)
One of titular virgin’s fellow workers at the store SmartTech, Rudd is hilarious as Dave, a petulant, wounded man getting over a bad break-up years ago in the worst way possible. The film is a surprisingly sweet romantic comedy in the guise of a sex romp – Steve Carell’s hapless Andy is initially just trying to get laid, then actually winds up finding a mature, happy relationship – and David’s character embodies that in his own twisted way: He is at once a swooning romantic and a profane cynic.
Most Rudd-ian Moment: Most people would point to the bromantic-to-a-fault “You know how I know you’re gay” sequence between the actor and Seth Rogen, but we prefer Dave gets alternately wistful and bitter about his ex to Andy: “You want to spend the next 60 years of your life never experiencing sex? And not just sex, but love, and relationships, and laughing, and cuddling…and all that shit?”
Rudd-ometer rating: 7
Knocked Up (2007)/This Is 40 (2012)
In both of these Judd Apatow dramadies, Rudd plays the married, seemingly stable Pete, who offers a counterpoint to Seth Rogen’s stoner Ben. His performance utilizes both his comic charm and his more sincere side; he actually gets many of the film’s more poignant moments, helping ground it in human experience and regret. Along with his wife Debbie (Leslie Mann), Pete takes center stage in the filmmaker’s more straight-faced follow-up, which has the couple confronting their entrance into middle-age and trying to find ways to improve their marriage. It’s an interesting example of Rudd’s ability to blend into both seriousness and zaniness while playing the same character in two tonally very different movies — and yet still fit right in.
Most Rudd-ian Moment: In Knocked Up, Debbie becomes convinced that Pete is having an affair, because he keeps disappearing. It turns out, however, that he’s playing fantasy baseball – he’s just been hiding it from his controlling wife. In This Is 40, Mann protests that he took a Viagra before having sex. His reply: “I was just trying to go turbo for your birthday. My hard-ons are still in analog, this shit’s digital!” A great line, but what makes this a supreme Paul Rudd moment is actually his wife’s response: “I don’t want a turbo penis. I like your medium soft one.”
Rudd-ometer rating: 8
Role Models (2008)
As a disgraced energy drink salesman who has to mentor an awkward, troubled teen (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse) due to a court agreement, Rudd overcomes his hostility about his predicament and embraces his nerdy mentee’s fondness for fantasy and roleplay. Here’s a deceptively tough part for the actor, making him run the gamut from aggressive, snarky pessimist to caring, earnest best bud. He nails it.
Most Rudd-ian Moment: After getting dumped by his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) when he proposes to her, Rudd’s character gets lit on his own energy drink. He then gives an incomprehensible and offensive speech to a middle school auditorium, and proceeds to wreck the company truck as he tries to flee from getting towed. The self-aware cynic reduced to romantic mush by heartbreak – that’s prime Rudd.
Rudd-ometer rating: 8
I Love You, Man (2009)
Peter Klaven (Rudd), an impressionable, soon-to-be-wed realtor, needs to find himself a best friend before his wedding. After a few bad bro-dates, Peter gets pulled into the orbit of seemingly contented, cool, Rush-loving man-child Sydney Fife, played by Jason Segel. The movie turns on our changing opinion of Segel’s character — going from admiration, to suspicion, to pity — and Rudd makes an ideal audience surrogate. His blank-slate malleability might be insufferable in the hands of any other actor. And, as Sydney starts to take over more and more of Peter’s life, our hero slowly becomes more agitated.
Most Rudd-ian Moment: Quite taken with Sydney’s idea (and expression) “Slap some bass,” Peter repeatedly yells “Slappin’ da bass, slappin’ da bass” while listening to Rush, eventually annoying the hell out of fiancée Rashida Jones.
Rudd-ometer rating: 10
Our Idiot Brother (2011)
As Ned, an impossibly trusting, dim organic farmer who has to move in with his Type A sisters after a stint in jail and a bad breakup, Rudd takes a strangely barbed movie — Ned’s innate goodness and honesty wrecks everyone’s life — and gives it humanity. This character could have easily come across as pathetic, or ridiculous, or irritating. But this is Paul Rudd, and we have nothing but love for him..
Most Rudd-ian Moment: At a party at his free-spirit sister’s (Zooey Deschanel) shared apartment, Ned gets hit on by a male-female couple, who then take him to bed and attempt to have a threesome with him. Ned chickens out at having to sleep with the man, and immediately feels super-guilty and terrible about it. “Maybe I should have just…tried harder,” he laments the following day.
Rudd-ometer rating: 9
Rudd and Jennifer Aniston are a married couple who fall in with a small neo-hippie commune after losing their jobs and their home. Each is tempted by this lifestyle in his or her own way — but when his wife falls for the free-love-preaching leader of the commune (played by an impossibly game Justin Theroux), Rudd has to learn to fight for her. It’s the rare P.R. character who becomes fully self-aware and determined by the end.
Most Rudd-ian Moment: Preparing to have a free-love tryst with a beautiful fellow commune member, he stands in front of a mirror revving himself up for sex, improvising different voices, including a ridiculous hillbilly accent. “I’m goahn git it up all in yoah vag…Wiath maah diiiack!”
Rudd-ometer rating: 7
Prince Avalanche (2013)
In David Gordon Green’s contemplative, minimalist drama, Rudd plays a man tasked with helping restore a woodland road, working alongside his girlfriend’s younger brother (Emile Hirsch). The two men are opposites: One wants to listen to German language lessons on their shared cassette player or enjoy the silence; the other younger man wants to rock out, have sex, and get drunk. The film makes deft use of Rudd’s sensitive persona but this time, instead of gentle comedy, it finds something brittle – a man determined to live inside his own mind. Although he’s known mainly for his outrageous comedies at this point, Rudd has continued to do smaller, more character-driven indies throughout his career – including films like Diggers (2006) and All Is Bright (2013). This is one of his best dramatic efforts.
Most Rudd-ian Moment: Exploring a burnt-out shell of a building, Rudd playfully reenacts a domestic scenario, pretending to come home to his wife. He then goes up some (pretend) stairs and (pretend) open the door to her bedroom, then (pretend) apologetically retreating after finding out he’s (pretend) interrupted her during a (pretend) phone call.
Rudd-ometer rating: 3