In 1993, Jeremy Piven seemed earmarked for comedy superstardom. An early career of obscure roles like “candle seller” in Bob Roberts and “sailor-freshman” in The Grifters had led to something of a breakthrough in Cameron Crowe’s Singles, where he played a motor-mouthed checkout clerk who reminds Campbell Scott of his old brilliance as a deejay. He only had one scene, but it was a doozy. It was such a doozy that when first time director Hart Bochner was casting his campus beer bust comedy PCU, he wanted Piven up front to play the lead role of Bluto-like party animal James “Droz” Andrews.
This was the break, and Piven was dead set on making the most of it. On the PCU commentary, he talks about being pulled aside by Fox executives and being told to do whatever he could to make the movie as funny as possible. Piven took this as a greenlight to improvise like crazy. The first day on set told a different story. Bochner, making his feature debut after a long career as an actor, stopped Piven in the middle of a take to tell him there would be no improvising on the film. Flustered, Piven bit his lip and accepted Bochner’s shackles.
It’s a shame too, because as much as I hate actors bitching about not being able to improvise (and if you’ve listened to Piven’s commentary, you know he does a fair amount of that), it would have helped PCU. The movie itself is very funny, but there is something a little too structured about it, as if the laughs have been pre-programmed into some database and the actors are just there are as puppets for the script. While this approach may work sometimes, you can very easily get the same result and also allow actors to throw in their two cents. When you have Jon Favreau, David Spade and Jeremy Piven all on the same set, you are doing yourself a favor by allowing them to riff a bit.
Regardless of Piven’s disdain for Bochner, the studio was high on PCU. It cost $9 million–a lot more in 1993 than it is now, but still conservative for a studio comedy. Execs were confident that they could make the budget back and a lot more by tapping into the same Gen X angst that had fueled comedies like Clerks and Reality Bites. And Piven is great in the film; playing a 7th year, chainsmoking senior, he is the ball of hard charging comic energy that keeps the movie pumping forward. Reminding some of a young Bill Murray, he was geared for the limelight in a big bad way.
And then the opening day grosses came in. PCU, due in large part to a shoddy marketing campaign full of vague images and cryptic tag lines, had done some pretty shitty business. Ultimately, it pulled in only $6 million and seemed doomed to collect dust on the shelf at Blockbuster, just another example of how the campus comedy has an abundance of semen but a dearth of box office potential. A happy footnote: the movie ultimately became a cult classic on video and spent years in heavy rotation on networks like Comedy Central and HBO. Looking back, it is like a forgotten page in the yearbook of comedy; Favreau, who played the dreadlocked man child Gutter, would explode two years later with Swingers and Spade, who played the Greg Marmalarde-like preppy villain, was already big off of Saturday Night Live and would pop the next year alongside Chris Farley in Tommy Boy. The same could not be said for Piven.
For some reason, despite having been frustratingly close to the comedic big time, Piven went back to the bench. Over the next decade, he popped up in a variety of flicks, some disposable, some worthwhile. There are certain actors that, when they pop on screen, you automatically want to throw your arm around them, like you’ve just bumped into an old friend on a street corner (this scenario actually plays out for John Cusack’s character in Grosse Pointe Blank, as he encounters old high school buddy Piven while wandering on a city street). Piven has always been one of those actors to me; a guy so quirky, untethered and full of caffeinated energy that suggesting you grab a beer runs a distant second to just flat out hugging him.
You can mark a point in Piven’s career, right around 2000, where he started to turn to television as his pathway to comedy glory. With long stints on The Larry Sanders Show and Ellen, he was starting to elbow his way back into the limelight. He made the occasional big screen appearance as well; his work as the prickly dean in Old School was a memorable reversal of his PCU persona. But it wasn’t until Piven landed the role of agent-extrordinaire Ari Gold on Entourage that dude started to blow up. He’s won three Emmys and one Golden Globe thus far for playing the acerbic, fast-talking Ari.
Film roles started to fall in with his newfound prominence. In 2006, Piven had the pivotal role of Buddy “Aces” Israel in the action flick Smokin Aces. Can’t say much for that movie except that Piven was the same slightly insane guy I remembered from PCU. Roles in shoot em up’s like The Kingdom and RocknRolla also came along. And now we get The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard.
From what I can tell, Piven is again playing the same fast talking, hard charging mofo that he’s been portraying throughout his career. The film’s trailer sets him up as the ultimate salesman, a guy who in an early scene is able to speak with such unbridled inspiration about the value of being able to smoke on an airplane that he converts an entire cabin into a menagerie of nicotine breathers. Things get a little foggy after that (the trailer for the film didn’t seem all that concerned with story) but it looks like Piven ultimately winds up the lead salesman at a car dealership and has to shepherd a ragtag group of employees in a quest to sell all of the cars on the lot. This movie is billed as another from the comedy factory of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talledega Nights) but they are leaving out a crucial ingredient in the equation: Neal Brennan, making his feature debut as a director, was co-creator of Chappelle Show and Dave Chappelle’s writing partner for years before the comedy duo disbanded after Chappelle’s public meltdown. You could make the argument that Chappelle Show‘s genius was tied inextricably to Dave’s presence, but I have confidence that Brennan is ready to make his mark (hopefully, unlike Bochner, he’ll let Piven improvise).
And so Jeremy Piven has been brought, through resiliency, determination or just plain luck, to the place where he stood fifteen years ago as PCU prepared to open in theaters: the threshold of superstardom. It’s an interesting story and the type that I don’t see too often unless your someone like Robert Downey, Jr. who was big, fell from grace, and then came back with both guns blazing. Piven’s has been a quieter, steeper climb and one that, unfortunately, he has had to make twice. Hopefully, the man that we affectionately know as Pivs won’t have to make it again, unless of course The Goods sucks in which he case he should move to Siberia and never act again. See, could be 1993 all over again. People turn on you quick.