Jennifer Garner’s Movie Career Is Not in the Toilet

5 actors who should be way more worried than Ben Affleck's wife.

Butter bombs, Jennifer Garner’s track record worsens,” intoned the headline on Yahoo! Movie Talk before writer Meriah Doty delivered a whole spiel about Garner’s tumble from box-office royalty.

The post left me in a daze. First, this isn’t 2006. Garner hasn’t been a matinee darling for years, nor has that been expected of her. Second, if profitability alone contributed to lengthy, rewarding careers then Michael Bay would be muttered in the same breath as Scorsese and Allen.

Doty sees things a little differently. “Garner was on a roll from 2001 to 2004, most notably starring in Daredevil with her now-husband Ben Affleck—a film that opened to more than $40 million,” she writes. “For the sake of her career, she should appear onscreen with Affleck again.”

This conveniently glances over the fact that Daredevil was a relentlessly awful movie, even by the generous standards of comic book adaptions. It was another in an inglorious line of creatively bankrupt turkeys that Affleck made in his failed 1998 to 2004 quest to become Generation X’s William Holden. He remedied that problem by directing films (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) devoid of affiliations with toymakers or fast-food empires. So Affleck, whose highly anticipated Argo opens Friday, should ask Garner to don Spandex and battle bad guys.

He clearly has no other choice.

All too often people use the box office as unassailable proof of an actor’s career: More money means that more people saw your movie. That’s one way to measure success, I guess. But, in my opinion, an actor’s success can be determined by answering a basic question:

Are we happy to see you?

In the case of Garner, the answer is yes. She brought the heart and soul to the shrill Juno and lent a touch of class to a Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy (2009’s Ghosts of Girlfriends Past)—which is like splitting the atom with children’s scissors. Most importantly, seeing her in trash like Valentine’s Day and that totally unnecessary Arthur remake nearly brought tears to my eyes. She deserved so much better.

Seeing a quality performer like Garner—and, yes, I plan to see Butter, a political satire—is like reuniting with a longtime friend: You’re too engrossed to care about the car they drive or whether they’re treating for dinner. Even though Maggie Gyllenhaal’s edgy days have waned, I love her because she always plays a character, not a persona. Ditto Michelle Williams and Richard Jenkins. It’s great to see Michael Shannon becoming Christopher Walken with range.

Conversely, there are actors whom I once liked that I’ve just about written off, like that buddy with a fixation for trashy 21-year-olds and Ed Hardy couture. Lindsay Lohan was a genuine talent before her personal life turned her into a pod person. Kate Hudson beguiled me in Almost Famous before spending the next decade irritating her way toward stardom. Jennifer Lopez and Bruce Willis decided it was in their best interest to become commodities.

Jennifer Garner is doing just fine, thank you. These actors, however, are in danger.

1. Adam Sandler (when he’s not working with Judd Apatow): When you watch the comedian’s early efforts like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, what’s amazing is how unabashedly, refreshingly weird they are. Sixteen years after exchanging blows with Bob Barker, Sandler has become domesticated.

2. Robert De Niro: I remember when a De Niro performance was an event, like watching Dwight Gooden pitch. Now, it seems like he plays only cops or ironically funny tough guys. Happy Endings Playbook may provide a spark for Dustin Hoffman-like adaptability.

3. Eddie Murphy: Tower Heist should have reintroduced us to the profane, poetic Murphy of Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop. Instead, we see a performer trapped in the polished, family-friendly cocoon he’s resided in since the mid-1990s.

4. Zac Efron: I give him credit for trying to shake the awkward, teenage blues associated with High School Musical. But, man, Sisyphus had it easier. Efron’s stubble was the most emotive part of his performance in The Lucky One, and watching director Lee Daniels move the action away from Efron—who’s only the main character—in The Paperboy is painful.

5. Tom Cruise: The personal has bled into the professional. He needs to take two to three years off so we can appreciate him. Then, Cruise can make a splash in some indie darling with wide appeal like The Artist. That will lead to the inevitable Entertainment Weekly cover story entitled “Cruise in Control!” or “Back to Being a Top Gun.”