The Best Times That Comedians Have Gone Seriously Dramatic
While most people spend January fretting about living up to those New Year’s resolutions (seriously, does anyone even do those longer than a week?), film nerds have something else entirely to stress over. January means the official beginning of awards season, and a fresh crop of films that no one has heard of that we’re now suddenly supposed to see immediately. Of this year’s picks, one movie has done especially well, both critically and at the box office—The Big Short, a drama/comedy/economic instructional film, that’s now a frontrunner for Best Picture at the Oscars.
When added together, none of its parts make sense. It’s a film based on a tell-all book about the 2008 mortgage crisis, the one that decimated America’s entire economy. Adam McKay, the legendary comedic force behind Anchorman, directed the film, and it stars a mix of serious and comedic actors like Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt. Carrell seems to carry the dramatic weight of the film, and though it’s not his first foray into seriously dark territory—that would be 2014’s Foxcatcher—it’s still just as jarring to see a comedian get really, really serious. Here are a few of our picks for when our favorite funnymen did the opposite of putting smiles on our faces.
Albert Brooks in Drive
An instant cult classic, Drive remains memorable for three big reasons: Gosling, its soundtrack (that you still hear in every nightclub to this day), and its horrendously excessive gore. Blame the third factor on Albert Brooks, the beloved comedian who gave us nightmares here as mobster Bernie Rose. Brooks was one of America’s preeminent stand-up comedians throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and he won hearts in feel-good romantic comedies like Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News. Hell, he was even the voice of Marlin in Finding Nemo. Which makes for the shock of him seeing gouge eyeballs out with a fork a surprising dramatic turn indeed. Every time he appears on screen there is only deep, uncontrollable dread.
Marlon Wayans in Requiem for a Dream
There are few movies that leave you wallowing in a pool of utter misery like Requiem for a Dream. Director Darren Aronofsky’s decision to cast Marlon Wayans in a lead role may seem odd. This is, after all, the man who helmed the classic ’90s sketch show In Living Color, and the Scary Movie franchise. But as Tyrone, one of the hapless youth who have their lives annihilated by drug use, Wayans is devastating. You know things will never, ever, never end well you start messing with the heroin trade, but seeing just how far he falls is more cringe-worthy than any Texas Chainsaw Massacre film combined. Perhaps the only triumph here is just how believable Wayans is. Now if only his agent would give him more projects like this instead of Scary Movie 9.
Bill Murray in Lost in Translation
Bill Murray’s iconic humor has always been flavored with disappointment and frustration. But neither of those qualities were ever as fully realized as they were in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Playing a thinly veiled version of himself, Murray plays more somber than he’d ever done, as he feels the pangs of isolation and failure in the midst the neon fantasia of Tokyo. Sure there’s still room for the occasional slapstick gag—the treadmill scene is comedy gold—but that’s not what one remembers. It’s the quiet moments of yearning that he shares with Scarlett Johansson, or his desperate attempts to find any kind of companionship as he sits and drinks the night away in a rooftop bar. Like the film itself, Murray is heartbreaking, for the first and most profound time.
Mo’Nique in Precious
How does a stand-up comedian go from starring in films with titles like Beerfest and Phat Girlz to winning an Academy Award on her first nomination? Giving said stand-up comedian a role as an abusive, psychotic mother from Hell is a good start. Oh, and bonus points if she freakin’ nails it. Watching Precious is sort of an exercise in masochism, all thanks to Mo’Nique’s unrecognizable turn as a complete and utter monster. From brutally terrorizing her daughter to skillfully manipulating her social workers, she doesn’t have a a single redeemable moment in a film already riddled with despair. They say that many comedians draw from an inner source of darkness for their humor, and if that’s the case, then we need to be kept at a safe distance from whatever nebulous wellspring Mo’Nique is carrying around with her.
Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love
Mental illness isn’t really a cakewalk to portray on screen, and far too often it leads to misrepresentation and borderline insensitivity. Amazingly, Adam Sandler (of all people) trumped both in his portrayal of Barry, a sensitive guy with more than a few anger issues in Paul Thomas Anderson’s strange, surreal romance Punch-Drunk Love. With a plot that bounces between true love, pudding cups, sex hotline scams, and undercover criminal organizations behind mattress stores, this movie is a lot, but it’s assuredly carried by Sandler’s most poignant performance to date. It’s frankly a revelation that the man behind some of the most inane, stupid jokes in modern comedy is able to give a performance this genuinely moving. He hasn’t been as good before, or since for that matter, but each viewing of this film is a rediscovery that at one time, Adam Sandler had some truly special talent. Somewhere.
Maya Rudolph in Away We Go
In this criminally under-seen indie gem, Maya Rudolph plays Verona, a woman six-months pregnant with her first child. The film concerns her and her husband, everyone’s favorite Office-boyfriend John Krasinski, as they travel across the country meeting old acquaintances in an attempt to find the perfect place to raise their child. It’s a little sappy at times, but Rudolph is the bedrock of the film, finding a center between the anxiety, excitement, absurdity, and bitter-sweetness of rapidly approaching parenthood. Considering that this is the woman who made SNL a force to be reckoned with, especially alongside her gal pals Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, Rudolph shines with an entirely new sense of seriousness here, one that plays just as powerfully as her comedic best.
Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Is there any way we could make this list without Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine? Absolutely not. Carrey is a revelation as Joel, the man who vengefully erases the love of his life from his mind in this masterful sci-fi romance. He had gone dramatic before, with lovely performances in The Truman Show and The Man on the Moon. But Eternal Sunshine is a special standout. Carrey’s portrayal of devastating heartbreak is subtle, relatable, and honest. From his opening moments riding a train through the snowy seaside, to his breakdown in a literally collapsing beach house of his memories, Carrey pulls off the most difficult challenge an actor could have to face: conveying the heartbreak of a real, normal person in extraordinary circumstances. Biggest Oscar snub of all time.
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