Comic Actors Show Their Chops In Dramatic Roles

February 16, 2012
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Of course, everyone knows Tom Hanks first came to the public’s attention in the cross-dressing TV sitcom Bosom Buddies, and that he took a number of comedic and romantic comedy film roles like those in Bachelor Party, Joe vs. the Volcano, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail (currently part of the Amazon Prime Instant video library, available for free to Prime members) before becoming the leading man we know today from such films as Forrest Gump, Apollo 13 and Cast Away.

Robin Williams started out as a standup comedian, then co-starred on another TV sitcom, Mork and Mindy, before embarking on a film career of his own. Like Hanks, he’s portrayed a mix of comic (Mrs. Doubtfire, also currently available for free to Prime members) and serious (One Hour PhotoWorld’s Greatest Dad) characters.

Still, to most people Hanks and Williams are exceptions that prove the rule, and the rule is that comedians can’t really act. Or can they?

You may think of Steve Martin, Jim Carrey and Jeff Goldblum as suited only to comedic roles, but each has at least one surprisingly strong dramatic turn on his resume. Consider:


Steve Martin in Shopgirl, based on his own novella of the same name. From Rotten Tomatoes:

Steve Martin wrote the screenplay and served as co-producer for this screen adaptation of his short novel, which takes a witty but bittersweet look at a young woman and the two men involved with her. Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) is an aspiring artist in her mid-twenties who, after graduating from college, moved to Los Angeles, where she works at the glove counter of an upscale department store…

One night, while doing her laundry, Mirabelle meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a scruffy but likable would-be musician who makes ends meet selling guitar amps. While Jeremy is obviously infatuated with Mirabelle, she isn’t sure how she feels about him, especially after she meets Ray Porter (Steve Martin), a man in his fifties whom she meets at the store. Ray is independently wealthy, intelligent, and charming, and after asking her out on a date he sweeps her off her feet. However…he refuses to commit exclusively to her and suggests they should both see other people, a prospect that no longer holds much appeal for her. Shopgirl received its world premiere at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi

As the charming and generous but ultimately cool and distant Ray, Martin subtly invests his performance with a deep well of sadness and a simultaneous desire for, yet terror of, intimacy that bubbles just beneath Ray’s glib and glossy surface. Even as he showers Mirabelle with material gifts to compensate for the genuine connection he knows he can never surrender to her, Ray knows as well as Mirabelle does that this will not be enough, eventually he will have to give her something more meaningful if he wants to keep her. If you’ve only ever thought of Steve Martin as the Wild and Crazy Guy standup comedian, or author, or even playwright, his turn as Ray Porter will be a real eye-opener for you.


Jim Carrey is known mostly for his manic and rubber-faced roles in such broad comedies as Liar Liar, The Mask and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (currently free, as part of the Prime Instant Video Library), so his grave and dark performance as Ebeneezer Scrooge in Disney’s A Christmas Carol came as a surprise to many. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who’d already seen him in The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (also a Prime Video), however. This mindbending film from French director Michel Gondry also stars Kate Winslet. From Rotten Tomatoes:

Jim Carrey stars as Joel Barish, a man who is informed that his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had her memories of their relationship erased from her brain via an experimental procedure performed by Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). Not to be outdone, Joel decides to have the same procedure done to himself. As Mierzwiak’s bumbling underlings Stan (Mark Ruffalo) and Patrick (Elijah Wood) perform the operation on Joel — over the course of an evening, in his apartment — Joel struggles in his own mind to save the memories of Clementine from being deleted. Kirsten Dunst, David Cross, and Jane Adams also star. ~ Matthew Tobey, Rovi

Gondry definitely took a risk in casting Carrey as the leading man here, not because of any lack of ability on Carrey’s part but because of his well-established, hugely comic public and screen persona. But when you watch this film, you’ll be glad Gondry cast the film as he did because Carrey’s fearless and limitless performance here is truly something to behold. While undergoing the memory wipe procedure, inside his own mind Joel determines the best way to keep his memories of Clementine is to bring her into the memories of his past, before they ever met. The scientists won’t be looking for remnants of Clementine to erase from before they met, so Joel smuggles her into scenes from his infancy and boyhood. It’s both charming and bittersweet to witness these memories along with Joel and Clementine, and heartbreaking to watch as they’re ripped away. Joel and Clementine race along, hand in hand, as everything from fences to entire buildings are sucked up and away from Joel’s consciousness as the memory wipe proceeds. It’s actually Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood who get the comic roles in this film.


Finally, consider Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum’s easygoing, laconic and comic performances in Jurassic Park and Earth Girls Are Easy may have had you convinced he’s best suited to funnyman roles. Even in The Fly and his more recent turn on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Season 8, Goldblum can’t seem to help letting his mischievous sense of humor peek out here and there in the occasional quip or gesture. But in Igby Goes Down, you’ll see a side of Goldblum you’ll hope is nothing at all like the man in real life.

This brilliantly pitch-black comedy stars the very talented Kieran Culkin in the breakout role of his career as the troubled and lonely Igby, and Ryan Phillippe matches Culkin scene for scene as his narcissistic, ambitious and image-obsessed older brother. But Goldblum is a revelation in the role of Igby’s wealthy, ruthless godfather, D.H.  D.H. initially comes across as the typical, laid-back Goldblum type, but when Igby crosses him, D.H. metamorphoses into a raw and vicious alpha male intent on defending his territory. The shock of this transformation is only heightened when, following his outburst, D.H. instantly settles back into his formerly smiling and friendly shell as easily as he might change into a new designer shirt. It’s truly chilling, and will give you a new appreciation for Goldblum as an actor. From Rotten Tomatoes:

The cynical son of an upper-class New York family bedeviled by booze, pills and mental illness strikes out on his own in this caustic, darkly comic drama… Igby grows into a rebellious youth, gets kicked out of several boarding schools and ends up in a hellish military academy. After one failed escape attempt, he heads to New York City…

As Igby gets drawn further into the mind games and hypocrisy of the adult world, his already jaded outlook grows even darker…Ultimately, though, [his mother’s] impending death draws him back into the family fold for unexpected revelations and realizations. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Burr Steers, Igby Goes Down features Rory Culkin, Kieran’s brother, as the young Igby. ~ Brian J. Dillard, Rovi

 

 

 

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