Mila Kunis is a household name, a media darling, and she’s got a prolific resume: Leads in two long-running hit TV series, a starring role in an Oscar-nominated film, an endless list of comedies. Now, she’s starring with Kate McKinnon in The Spy Who Dumped Me —a funny, fine-for-a-rainy-day kind summer comedy where Mila delivers a predictably great punchline, and smoky-eye inspo, and not much else. Despite her having consistent work since the ‘90s, it feels like she rarely lands in anything that’s really, really good — or anything that lets her deviate from the types of Kunis characters we've all come to expect.
But why? If Hollywood appreciates Kunis enough to keep casting her consistently, why not put her in roles that actually let her flex as much as her adoring fans know she can?
Twenty years ago, Kunis burst on the scene in the instantly popular series That ‘70s Show playing Jackie: a vain, demanding teenage vixen whose stunning looks, cockeyed wisdom, and badass attitude bewitched the boys in her orbit. Her presence on the series was so great, it’s still easy to picture her storming into the basement to yell at Ashton Kutcher, despite the fact that the show wrapped all the way back in 2006.
During much of the same time that Kunis was playing Jackie, she was also voicing another teen character: Meg on Family Guy. To Kunis’ credit, the roles couldn’t have been more different: Jackie was the popular-girl archetype, and Meg was awkward, totally unpopular, and relatively unlovable. Kunis also voiced a range of characters in the latenight animated fave Robot Chicken. In addition to making Kunis’ voice just as recognizable as her onscreen presence, each of Kunis’ animated roles served as comic relief, just like Jackie. Though a break from funny did finally come in 2010.
In Black Swan, she played a ballerina whose seductive narcissism was a perfect foil to Natalie Portman's inner demons of ambition and anxiety. Directed by indie wunderkind Darren Aronofsky, the film was a mainstream hit. Kunis’ role may have been surprising for fans used to seeing her deliver punchlines with a wink, but she more than held her own. It was the type of performance (and role) that could have freed Kunis from her funny-on-TV pigeonhole and brought her to more serious places on the big screen.
But, oddly and disappointingly, that didn’t happen. In 2013, Kunis had roles in three movies: all of them met with lukewarm reviews and unimpressive box office earnings. Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) could have been huge for Kunis, who played the Wicked Witch of the West as a naive young sorceress whose heartbreak transforms to anger and evil-doing. Unfortunately, the movie was a mess and Kunis’ fine performance as an archetypal (but poorly written) character didn’t achieve the resonance it might have. That same year, Blood Ties, a French crime thriller set in the ‘70s and starring Clive Owen, also failed to thrill critics; and Third Person, yet another crime thriller, this time co-starring Liam Neeson, and directed by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis, was an even bigger flop.
Roles in sexy crime stories seemed perfect for Kunis in the wake of her dark turn in Black Swan, and it’s vexing that the star power in those movies didn't pay off.
In the years following, Kunis did some additional indie work that also failed to noticeably uplift her career; 2014’s The Color of Time was considered an interesting experiment but a critical failure. The Angriest Man in Brooklyn was more a showcase for Robin Williams than a chance for Kunis to shine alongside him.
Whatever the reason for the spate of underwhelming serious roles, Kunis has pivoted back to comedy in the years since. In 2016, Jon Lucas cast her in a lead role in Bad Moms. It was a fun, well-received movie that fell flat with subsequent sequels, (not unlike Lucas’ runaway success The Hangover). Her character in Bad Moms is yet another sexy-if-kooky funny girl. Perhaps that is her comfort zone, or audiences themselves have boxed her in there. She is demonstrably appealing in meatier roles but still can't seem to transcend.
Since her earliest roles were those of young, sexually precocious women, one obvious gambit for re-contextualizing her talents would be to cast her in a decidedly non-sexy role (a classic example of this would be Charlize Theron's turn in Monster, which netted her the Best Actress Oscar in 2004). Working with a filmmaker whose roles for women transcend baseline sexuality and offer something deeper could also work. Aronofsky saw this potential, but one could also say that Kunis simply had the right looks and vibe for the role: a gritty, guttersnipe version of Portman's prim (but vulnerable) aloofness.
It’s also easy to imagine Kunis cast in some high profile roles that have gone to other actresses in her age range. Emily Blunt is wonderful to watch, but is there any reason Mila Kunis couldn't have played the badass military officer in Sicario? Kristen Wiig is a comedy goldmine; but wouldn’t Mila have nailed the role of the jealous mom in the indie gem Diary of a Teenage Girl? Jennifer Lawrence really leans into her funny-girl M.O. on and offscreen, but has no problem nabbing serious roles. Kunis could easily fit into that same pair of shoes — and it’s time that she got the right movie, role, and moment to give it a shot.