Last weekend, I saw “This is the End,” the new movie starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel and Craig Robinson. All playing themselves, the six attend a party at Franco’s opulent Hollywood home — filled with recognizable faces like Mindy Kaling, Paul Rudd, and Jason Segal — when the apocalypse arrives. For all intents and purposes, this sextet are the lone survivors left to fend off Armageddon… and often each other. Negotiating the end of the world brings out the worst in everybody above the title, and that self-centered behavior is displayed with a winking nod to each actor's public image.
Franco eggs on a tabloid culture that's painted him as a pretentious, artsy douche who may be in the closet. McBride presents himself as a somewhat better-spoken version of his “Kenny Powers” character. Hill is so relentlessly and condescendingly nice, Baruchel (self-righteously “anti-industry,” but also resentful of everyone's more successful careers) eventually decks him. Rogen is a useless, selfish pothead. The flaky Robinson reacts to danger with a girly scream.
Audiences will hypothesize how close the film versions of these actors are to reality — save perhaps Michael Cera, who by all accounts is nothing like the dude who spends his final hours snorting coke and slapping Rihanna’s ass — but that’s both beside the point and the point. A movie like “T.I.T.E.” can only be made if the participants are secure with that inevitability. Clearly, this cast ain’t losing sleep. The goal is to get laughs. And while the last 20-ish minutes are uneven, the movie is often hysterical because of everybody’s willingness to don a “kick me” sign.
Watching the film, out of nowhere, Dwight Howard popped into my head. Given how the center is at forefront of damn near every NBA conversation, particularly in Los Angeles, a day without Howard on the brain is unfortunately a rare luxury. But this was different. Seeing these actors parody themselves, it dawned on me how Dwight, despite his reputation as someone who “never stops joking around,” seems the least likely person on Earth to participate in a project like “T.I.T.E”
Were the Lakers starring in this film, I could easily picture Kobe Bryant cranking up the “Mamba-ness” to mythical proportions, jutting his jaw and telling teammates to put on their big boy pants. Pau Gasol might have fun throwing audiences for a loop by dropping “the facade” and emerging an absurdly selfish prick. Based on his movies, Steve Nash seems up for a sly joke. Metta World Peace lives to screw with people’s heads.
But indefatigable jokester rep be damned, Howard strikes me as someone horribly uncomfortable tweaking his persona at his own expense. He loves to do impressions. Or recite lines from “300” at the top of his lungs. Or broadly act like a goofball. But that's not the same thing as having a sense of humor about yourself, and from what I’ve witnessed, the man possesses little to none. The business of being Dwight Howard is deadly serious business. Not since Clark Griswold has the quest for fun appeared so miserable. Howard presents the completely reasonable goal of enjoying his career and life with the strident defensiveness of a man fighting for the right to conduct Ponzi schemes. For a dude who claims to never apologize for having fun, he sure does explain himself a lot.
I realize athletes and entertainers are held to different standards, the latter given far more leeway to be politically incorrect or behave in ways incompatible with hawking Gatorade. An athlete’s image, particularly a star athlete's, is an important part of his “brand.” It wouldn't be fair to expect Howard to spoof himself onscreen, like Cera, by engaging in a three-way while casually sipping a juice box. (Although that would make the upcoming turkey movie very interesting.) Howard has worked hard to craft an image, and is naturally protective of it.
But you don't want to be a slave to that image, either.
Ultimately, your image is what you make of it, and how you control it. Image can be consistently reinforced with calculated precision, periodically turned on its head, or regularly contorted like a circus freak. But whatever the case, Dwight needs to be the one sculpting the clay, rather than a passive bystander taking cues from the media, fans or his handlers, especially if that approach means getting trapped in the safest but potentially unhappiest situation.
Howard will soon be tasked with making a decision about his future, and for the first time in a while, the shots are truly his to call. What he wants can finally dictate his actions. But with those actions comes reactions, and for every one person who approves of his decision, nine others will react with scorn.
Remain a Laker and Dwight will inevitably be labeled by many as the guy who grabbed the money. Or was too concerned about becoming a movie star. Or was afraid of how playing for a third team in three years during his prime would affect his legacy. Or didn't have the balls to do what he really wanted.
Join the Rockets, Clippers, Hawks, etc. and Dwight will have “wilted” under the spotlight of being a Laker. Or bails whenever situations aren't perfect. Or teamed up with James Harden, Chris Paul, Steph Curry, etc. because he's not an “alpha male.” Or may be a star, but isn't a “franchise player.”
Howard must accept the uncomfortable truth that universal approval and appeal is impossible. The last two seasons of the center’s career have been a P.R. disaster, in large part because he’s prioritized outside opinion first. It's impossible to maintain a public life without putting off people, which makes trying pointless. If an unpopular decision is necessary, at least make it your own for reasons you understand. If people are gonna draw the wrong conclusions, let that happen on your terms. Despite his stature and fame, Howard never appears to be pulling his own strings. For his own well-being, he needs to figure out what he wants from his career, make a decision accordingly, then let the talking heads and faceless fans say and Tweet what they will.
Otherwise, the fun Howard so deeply craves will remain elusive.