In honor of Jason Segel’s performance as David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour, which screened last night as part of Ebertfest 2015, here are some of our favorite performances by comedic actors in dramatic roles.
Ryan Neil: I have always been a huge fan of Robin Williams’ work, be it his films or his stand up. He was one of those intrinsically hilarious performers who had this unbelievable energy that brought his film work bursting to life, but if you ask me, his absolute best work came through his serious roles. His performances in films like Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society still maintain his trademark sense of humor, but these primarily dramatic films saw Williams give some of his most genuine, heartfelt performances. In Good Will Hunting, he plays Sean Maguire, a psychologist who helps Matt Damon’s Will Hunting find his way in life. This is the film that won Williams an Academy Award, and rightfully so. It’s a performance that conveys so much raw emotion through a series of passionately delivered monologues that are truly powerful. His chemistry with Damon is electric, and Williams’ performance elevates the film from good to great. Other standout dramatic performances in Williams’ illustrious career are Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam, and World’s Greatest Dad. They all have elements of comedy in them, but his approach to the dramatic content is what makes these films so effective. Robin Williams was an incredibly gifted comedian, but every foray he took into the world of serious dramas always yielded something interesting. His performances always had a level of vulnerability that allowed you to truly understand his characters, and it’s impossible to deny that talent.
Josh Peterson: When I engage in the pointless and frustrating task of thinking about what my favorite movies of all time might be, I tend to make a separate mental list for comedies. It’s something I think about an embarrassing amount, and therefore the lists are constantly being shuffled around in my head. The only real consistency among them is one Canadian dude. Jim Carrey is the star of my favorite comedy of all time, which is of course Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Ray Finkle forever). I could write a novel about how much I love that movie, but this article isn’t about funny films. It’s about ones that break your heart, that make you feel like you have some sort of deeper understanding of the human condition or your place in it. It’s about movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In a future that seems pretty much the same as ours, there is a company that is capable of erasing people from your memory. You don’t have to live with anything you don’t want to, you can simply forget and live in blissful ignorance. In this world, Clementine (played by the always remarkable Kate Winslet) decides to erase her boyfriend she recently broke up with, Joel (Carrey) from her memories. Crushed, Joel decides to have an identical procedure done to have her erased from his mind as well. As we move through his memories and watch him and Clementine meet and fall in love, it becomes clear how fragile and beautiful the relationship between two people can be, and how impulsive we can be in the pain that is caused by a relationship like that breaking apart.
Carrey gives what is probably the best performance of his life in the film, summoning quiet insecurities that you would never know he had access to had you only seen his comedic work. He makes you feel how much Joel loves Clementine with whispers rather than grand gestures. You can see the guilt and sadness in his eyes as he crawls through the covers and begs to keep a memory he is watching slip away. He is utterly convincing, and completely heartbreaking. By technicalities this is a science-fiction movie, but I have never seen a film that better captures the realities of relationships and the dueling qualities of pain and joy that reside within them.
Carly Smith: Bill Murray has always been one of my absolute favorite actors. I grew up watching his performances on Saturday Night Live, hanging onto the novelty of Ghostbusters (1984), and watching and re-watching Caddyshack (1980) at least once a year since I’ve been ten years old. I’ve seen Groundhog Day (1993) so many times that I can truly empathize with Phil, and to this day, I’ll argue anyone to the death who tries to tell me that Scrooged (1988) isn’t the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol. In high school, I was turned onto Wes Anderson films by a friend who introduced me to The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), and from there I moved through the rest of Anderson’s filmography, feeling that same sense of warmth and comfort whenever Murray showed up on screen to deliver a dry joke or a perfectly unscripted blank expression.
However, maybe the most important role that Bill Murray has ever played is that of Bob Harris in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003). This is not a film about the kind of lonely people that you find in a traditional Hollywood film, the kind who meet and are immediately aware that they’re perfect for each other and decide to be together regardless of their separate lives and the families they love back home. Coppola does not give us the easy answers or the predictable turns that Hollywood films have conditioned us audiences to desire, and therein lies the reason that so many people have simply disliked it. “Nothing happens,” “What’s the point?” “What did he say to her at the end?” are all commonly cited responses to the film, and I find these comments incredibly and sadly shortsighted. The film could have taken the easy way out: it could have been about two Americans in maybe the most foreign and confusing city who instantly recognize their chemistry and live happily ever after.
But it isn’t.
Instead, the film showcases, with perfect subtly, two people sharing the loneliness and isolation that comes along with the realization that their lives are stuck and hard and human. Bob Harris has a difficult marriage with a wife and children he loves more than anything; Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) is stuck in love with a husband she fears is, or will be soon, cheating on her. Neither of them plays into the fantasy that being together in love or intimacy with each other in this short moment of their lives will somehow erase their hardships. Rather, they recognize their relationship for what it is: happenstance—two Americans in a hotel bar in Tokyo who find empathy together
Bill Murray acts in a way that make it seem as if he isn’t acting at all. We, as an audience, forget that we’re watching a character reciting (mostly) scripted lines and enacting (mostly) scripted movements. We wonder to ourselves, after the credits roll and we remember that we’re sitting in a theater or on our couches at home, if Bill Murray was perhaps just being himself. The reasons for this being that no part of Coppola’s film feels in any way a farce, a contrived Hollywood flick full of bells and whistles and falsified realities. Instead, Lost in Translation does a wonderful job of reminding us how things work in the real world: messily, imperfectly. Sophia Coppola and Bill Murray do a helluva job reminding us in a beautifully sad way that we’re all just simply human, but that we’re all, for better or worse, in it together.