6 comedians in their best serious roles
Find a guy – or gal – they say, who will make you laugh. Find someone who is smart and funny, it will be fun, they say. Or so you would think. Google takes relationship advice a lot more seriously, suggesting we seek out qualities such as respect and security, trust and the ability to communicate.
It’s all terribly confusing.
Even more so when an actor makes a name for themselves as a comedian with a string of slapstick box office hits to their credit, and then suddenly turns around and surprises everyone with a solemn role – and a good one at that.
There are plenty of Hollywood stars who can, and have, crossed over from one genre to the other, which illustrates their ability to flex those acting muscles more than anything. Think Robert De Niro (Goodfellas, and Analyze This, Casino and Meet The Fockers) and Steve Carell (40 Year Old Virgin, Foxcatcher), for example. Or Robin Williams, who funnily enough (see what I did there?) had more dramatic film roles than comedic, but was infinitely famous for his stand-up comedy.
Here, we are more concerned with those, who if their name is mentioned, we immediately jump to the ridiculous – try it: Jim Carrey – and might not know they can pull off the gravitas as well.
Here’s our top-six list … with some overlaps as a bonus.
Where to even begin? He’s straddled the fence between rom-coms like The Wedding Singer and all-out adolescent comedy like Big Daddy for most of his career, seldom straying into dramatic territory.
He’s in the 2020 movie Hubie Halloween, which is on Netflix. In it, he plays Hubie Dubois, an apparently simple man, ridiculed by the small town in which he lives and the endless butt of jokes. His side hustle is to be a “Halloween Helper”. Sandler co-produced, and co-wrote the script, managing to get several big names on board, like Ray Liotta, Liev Schreiber, Michael Chiklis and Steve Buscemi.
Says Roger Ebert: “While he was doing press for Uncut Gems [see below], Adam Sandler joked that if he didn’t get an Oscar for that film that he would torture us and make the worst Netflix comedy ever made for revenge. The good news is that this is not that movie.”
We see a completely different side of Sandler in the Netflix drama Uncut Gems, in which he plays the dark and serious role of Howard Ratner, a New York jewellery dealer with a chronic gambling addiction, which leads him into an ever-spiralling sequence of pretty dark consequences.
Stiller is in more or less the same league as Sandler, and you’d be forgiven for expecting them to be in more of the same movies together.
The one in which they are is The Meyerowitz Stories on Netflix, which is not a comedy but in fact a rather excellent drama.
In the former, Stiller plays Gaylord “Greg” Focker, a nurse who is determined to impress his girlfriend’s family as he intends proposing to her. He doesn’t make a particularly good impression, and matters are made worse when his potential father-in-law – and former CIA agent – subjects him to a lie detector test. The role is played by Robert De Niro, and frankly he could scare anyone, even when he’s being funny. Maybe more so.
Brad’s Status sees Stiller portraying a man having a midlife existential crisis, as he realises everyone he went to college with now has a fabulous life and he doesn’t. This coincides with having to take his son on a tour of colleges, exacerbating the introspection.
“It’s an ‘envy-anxiety’ role that isn’t far from Stiller’s parts in Noah Baumbach films such as Greenberg, While We’re Young or The Meyerowitz Stories. Maybe something in Stiller’s face does suppressed jealousy well,” says The Guardian.
Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher, The Holiday – both on Netflix
In perhaps one of her best roles, Diaz plays a shallow, self-absorbed teacher in Bad Teacher. She hates her job and was planning to marry herself out of it. That gets cancelled when the fiancé learns she’s only after his money, so it’s back to school for weed-smoking, heavy-drinking Elizabeth Halsey.
“The moments in the film that stay away from clichéd rom-com plot devices and show Halsey’s true shallow, filthy, drunken, superficial and indifferent nature actually make the film worth watching,” said Flickering Myth.
Maybe not the most serious of roles – Diaz often plays into the ditzy blonde stereotype – but infinitely more compassionate is The Holiday rom-com on Netflix. Diaz plays opposite Kate Winslet, the two women doing a home swap for the festive season, and both coming out of broken relationships. The leading men are played by Jack Black (another one you’d expect to see in standard comedy but something about him makes him adorable in romantic comedies, too) and Jude Law. It’s not hard to anticipate how paths will criss-cross.
“Coming from Nancy Meyers, the director of What Women Want (2000), The Holiday is another light-hearted rom-com, this time telling the story of four people who are all dissatisfied with their lives until a fateful meeting changes each of them for the better during the Christmas holidays,” said The Film Magazine. “It is … an enjoyable watch during the holidays that helps you get into the Christmas spirit.”
Chris Rock in Grown Ups – on Netflix, Top Five – on Showmax
Rock is one of the most versatile of the bunch, going from stand-up one-man comedy specials, to comedy, to teaming up with Adam Sandler in films like Grown Ups, Grown Ups 2 (both on Netflix) and The Longest Yard (on Showmax).
In Top Five on Showmax, Rock plays a day-in the-life version of himself: a brilliant stand-up comic turned hack Hollywood movie clown named Andre Allen (like Rock, once declared The Funniest Man in America by Time magazine), who is exhibiting all the signs of a midlife crisis, explains Roger Ebert. Technically, it’s classified as a comedy, not a drama, but when you hold it up against the other movies mentioned, the differences are clear.
Netflix categorises Grown Ups as goofy and slapstick, which should tell you all you need to know about this story of five childhood friends who reunite after 30 years, but haven’t necessarily matured accordingly.
“The setup for the story: Five kids were on a basketball team in middle school. Their beloved old coach has died. To mourn him they return to the lakeside cabin where they celebrated their victory all those years ago. Wouldn’t you know, the five kids on the team they beat are at the same lake for the same weekend,” continues Roger Ebert.
The sequel, Grown Ups 2, reunited most of the original cast – for better or worse.
Christina Applegate in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Dead to Me – both on Netflix
If you’re old enough, you’ll remember Applegate from Married With Children, playing the daughter of Peg (Katey Segal, Sons of Anarchy) and Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill, Modern Family).
In Dead To Me on Netflix, she partners with Linda Cardellini to lead the dark comedy series about a woman who joins a grief group after her husband is killed. There she makes a friend, but that friend has a pretty grim secret. It’s really funny in places, if you like that kind of thing, and there are two seasons to stream. Commented Ready Steady Cut on the first: “Dead to Me, created by Liz Fieldman, is an easy-to-binge narrative with two engaging, likable female leads surrounded by a dark story, seasoned with a dose of comedy. Season 1 is fun, never gets boring, and is full of surprises.”
So while that is humorous in its own way, Dead To Me is to Anchorman 2 what Rock’s Top Five is to Grown Ups. Starring Will Ferrell as the legendary Ron Burgundy, the original movie in the three-part franchise (of which this is the third despite having “2” tagged onto it) is generally considered to be one of the best comedies of the 2000s. It’s also a parody and satire that was well ahead of its time.
This outing is set in the 1980s, with The Washington Post outlining Applegate’s character Veronica landing a coveted gig anchoring the national news, which sends Ron into an alcoholic tailspin. He is rescued by GNN, which intends to broadcast the news 24 hours a day, without a break. Who’d have thought?
Sacha Baron Cohen – depending on your age, he’s Ali G or Borat. You can see him in the latter role on Amazon Prime Video in his latest title, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. The actor is famous for his mankini and for never breaking character and thus having been able to fool – and upset – many innocent victims (the closest local equivalent is perhaps Leon Schuster).
The unexpected triumph is The Trial Of The Chicago 7 on Netflix, based on a true story, written and directed for the small screen by the inimitable Aaron Sorkin, who is arguably one of the best in the business (The West Wing, The Newsroom).
Baron Cohen – who has a history degree from Cambridge University – plays Abbie Hoffman, one of the seven men put on trial on charges to incite violence following a “peaceful” protest against the war in Vietnam, in 1968. Initially, Hoffman is the clown in the courtroom, playing for laughs but at the same time, taking stabs at the judicial process. (Here’s a bonus fun fact: look out for another iteration of Abbie Hoffman – clue: he’s dressed in an American flag – in Forrest Gump.)
To illustrate how difficult it is to put Baron Cohen into a neat little box (Prankster? Genius? Activist? Clown?), The New York Times discusses more of his contradictory characteristics, from the cello to chocolate cake…