So let’s say you have a script that’s basically about two guys: a guy that’s supposed to be pretty charming even though he’s slightly unsavory and a guy who is supposed to be totally creepy because he’s a serial killer. The goal is trying to keep the unsavory character relateable even if he makes a few bad calls – bad calls like deciding to dump a body he didn’t kill into a lake instead of reporting it to the police because he doesn’t think he can convince the police that he’s innocent - so you’re going to need an actor who has an innate sort of likeability in that role. The serial killer, on the other hand, is going to spend most of his time on screen either stabbing women or talking about stabbing women, so you’re going to want to have an intense actor in that role.
Now let’s say you have two actors signed up for this movie: Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix. Great! Vaughn has made a career out of playing likeable but slightly sleazy guys; he plays a variation on that type in almost all of his comedies. And Phoenix has carved a real niche for himself as an intense brooder, even garnering up Oscar nominations and other accolades for his portrayals of tormented souls. So you’ve got a solid everyman type and a solid serial killer type, so you’re ready to roll, right?
Well, no, because Clay Pigeons actually gets the casting completely backwards. Phoenix is cast as the hapless normal guy and Vince Vaughn is cast as the serial killer. Phoenix isn’t bad in his role – he’s sort of bland, but the script doesn’t give his character much variety or depth, so I’m not sure that it’s entirely his fault. Vince Vaughn, on the other hand, doesn’t work at all as the serial killer. He has a few affectations that are fine – in particular his fake laugh at weird times is a nice touch – but he doesn’t have the dead eyes of a serial killer, nor can he summon up the suppressed rage of someone who is driven to kill over and over again. He always seems like he's about to say "ah, I'm just kiddin' with ya!" which is not something you'd say about Ted Bundy.
Even if Clay Pigeons got the casting right it would still have real problems – it’s not as funny as it thinks it is, for example, and the resolution of the story is patently unbelievable if you know anything at all about the justice system – but it would have been a lot more functional if the roles had been switched around. When Phoenix is in his zone he can be utterly captivating, even if he’s drawing your attention to something unlikeable. If he’d gotten the juicier part this movie would automatically be twice as entertaining, and if you throw in a likeable guy like Vince Vaughn playing a likeable role instead of a creepy role he isn’t well fitted for – well, that’s icing on the cake. But instead of getting a well-iced cake, we got this total misfire which takes one wrong step after another until a real fizzle of an ending.
Winner: The Cat