Gone are the facial tics, the outlandish costumes, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge ironic detachment he’s known for. Gone is the kamikaze, entertain-at-all-costs enthusiasm too.
“All my usual trickery, yes,” Will Ferrell joked. After “Saturday Night Live,” “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” funnyman Ferrell just wants to be taken seriously. To prove it, he’s starring in Friday’s “Stranger Than Fiction” as a mild-mannered IRS agent who learns his life is actually the subject of a fictional book.
“It was kind of a welcome change for me to get to kind of not be so overt with everything, a nice challenge to be able to just play things subtly for the run of an entire movie,” Ferrell commented. “It’s very unusual to underplay as much as I was doing.”
The old Hollywood adage says: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Ferrell is the latest in a long line of talented comedians to prove that statement true, going from laughs to tears with relative ease. Whether Ferrell has the same type of career longevity as the following six actors remains to be seen.
Actor: Robin Williams
Earned His Comedic Chops: On TV with an iconic performance as Mork in “Mork & Mindy” and with an unrivaled string of high-energy stand-up acts heavy on improvisation.
Dramatic Breakthrough: After playing the spinach-loving sailor man in Robert Altman’s “Popeye,” Williams went on to star in “The World According to Garp” and “Moscow on the Hudson,” the latter of which let Williams combine comedy with human drama.
Speed Bump: Williams didn’t suffer a serious setback until well into his career, with melodramatic films like “Jakob the Liar,” “Patch Adams” and “What Dreams May Come.”
Strengths: Williams is best at playing intelligent characters whose sometimes standoffish exteriors hide deep reservoirs of empathy. These characters use humor as a defense mechanism (often to deflate authority) rather than as a form of attack. See: “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Good Will Hunting.”
Weaknesses: Under no circumstances should Robin Williams ever be allowed to play a clown or an insane person, as it gives his worst instincts for overacting and ad-libbing creative license. See: “Patch Adams” and “House of D.”
Verdict: For someone known as the consummate comedian, Williams’ dramatic résumé speaks for itself: three Oscar nods for Best Actor and one win for Best Supporting Actor. After a string of disappointing roles in the late ’90s, Williams’ best work might be ahead of him, with low-key turns in thrillers like “Insomnia” and “One Hour Photo” pointing toward darker/riskier choices.
Actor: Adam Sandler
Earned His Comedic Chops: With six years on “Saturday Night Live” and with a series of low-concept/ high-grossing comedies starting with 1995′s “Billy Madison.”
Dramatic Breakthrough: P.T. Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love.”
Speed Bump: “Spanglish.”
Strengths: Playing characters who gleefully and remorselessly lash out at others, who would have thought that Sandler’s angry man-child roles in “Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore” and “Big Daddy” hid wounded souls craving respect? That would be Anderson, whose “Punch Drunk Love” revealed complicated shades to Sandler’s persona.
Weaknesses: Being too mean, which is a fine line that the actor occasionally (and joyfully) crosses. If Sandler’s reduced to yelling, which he does all too often, he’s not at his best.
Verdict: It’s still early in Sandler’s dramatic career, but with “Reign Over Me,” he seems poised to capture old magic with unexpressed and confused rage. In the film, Sandler plays a widower looking to rekindle an old friendship after losing his family in the 9/11 attacks.
Actor: Bill Murray
Earned His Comedic Chops: On “Saturday Night Live” and as perhaps the funniest actor of the ’80s, with scene-stealing performances in classic films such as “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes” and “Caddyshack.”
Dramatic Breakthrough: Although he leveraged his fame to make “The Razor’s Edge,” and further showed shades of his dramatic talent in “Groundhog Day,” it wasn’t until “Rushmore” that Murray was recognized as a serious leading man.
Speed Bump: “The Razor’s Edge,” which was a financial and critical failure.
Strengths: Nobody is better than Bill Murray at playing “quiet,” often as jaded characters who react to the world’s foibles by collapsing inwardly.
Weaknesses: This works only if Murray has something to react to, to push his characters inside themselves. If everyone in the film is as cynical as he is, his performances lose gravitas. See: “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.”
Verdict: When Murray makes fewer outward displays of “acting,” we’re more drawn to his performances. Murray makes what should be boring seem effortless and absorbing. “Lost in Translation” will probably not be his only Oscar-nominated performance.
Actor: Tom Hanks
Earned His Comedic Chops: As the best of us for the rest of us — an everyman leading actor in a string of silly comedies including “Splash,” “Turner & Hooch” and “Big.”
Dramatic Breakthrough: “Philadelphia,” for which Hanks won an Academy Award for Best Actor.
Speed Bump: The disastrous “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” a pompous adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book, with Hanks terribly miscast as financial guru Sherman McCoy.
Strengths: Hanks has a puppy-dog earnestness that is hard to dislike and infuses his best characters with a sense of inner nobility and purpose even, and perhaps especially, if they are societal outcasts. See: “Philadelphia,” “Forrest Gump” and “The Terminal.”
Weaknesses: It’s hard to target an actor with two Oscars for specific weaknesses, but in recent performances, Hanks seems to have lost the joy he so effortlessly infused into his early characters. See: “The DaVinci Code.” The closest he’s come to recapturing some of that manic energy has been as the voice of Woody in two “Toy Story” movies and with a surprisingly light performance in “Catch Me if You Can.”
Verdict: One of the best and most popular actors of the past 20 years, Hanks’ tendency to play “nice” is a small price to pay for one of Hollywood’s greatest presences. (Though would it be too much to hope that he returns to comedy once in a while?)
Actor: Jim Carrey
Earned His Comedic Chops: On the groundbreaking ’90s sketch-comedy show “In Living Color” and by talking out of his rear end in the wildly popular “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”
Dramatic Breakthrough: Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show.”
Speed Bump: Carrey hit a skid with “The Majestic,” a melodramatic ode to supposedly forgotten values.
Strengths: Like Ferrell, Carrey is a comedic kamikaze who’s willing to go to any lengths for a laugh. This seemingly endless openness is also his best dramatic tool. As Truman Burbank in “The Truman Show” and Andy Kaufman in “Man on the Moon,” Carrey displayed a daring vulnerability interspersed with surprising spontaneity.
Weaknesses: If anything, his brilliant work in dramatic fare is undercut by his occasionally clownish persona. Anybody who didn’t make a name for themselves talking out of their behind would have been nominated for an Oscar for “Man on the Moon.”
Verdict: Carrey’s had a string of recent projects stalled or shelved. His total of zero Oscar nominations (despite three award-worthy performances) only underscores the difficulty for comedic actors to be taken seriously in dramatic flicks.
Actor: Steve Martin
Earned His Comedic Chops: With an arrow through his head as a zany stand-up and performance comedian, often playing wacky/dimwitted characters. See: “The Jerk,” “SNL.”
Dramatic Breakthrough: Light comedies with heavy undercurrents of poignancy cemented Martin’s dramatic chops. Before “Parenthood” and “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” there was “All of Me.”
Speed Bump: While Martin has had many recent comedic failures, his dramatic work has remained solid.
Strengths: He writes a lot of his material himself. In real life, Martin is a MENSA member and in his best roles is either the smartest guy in the room (“The Spanish Prisoner,” “Shopgirl”) or thinks he is (“L.A. Story”).
Weaknesses: Martin’s deliberate, often caustic manner of speech occasionally comes off an insincere.
Verdict: Anyone who’s read Martin’s screenplays, including the aforementioned “Shopgirl” and “L.A. Story,” but also “Roxanne” and “Bowfinger,” wishes he would take a break from juvenile family comedy and concentrate on crafting the type of biting performance pieces he’s so good at.
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