Sunday, November 20, 2011

FILM TOPIC: The Fall of the Comedic Lead Actor and the Rise of the Scene-Stealer

As audiences flock to theaters for ensemble comedies (The Hangover, Bridesmaids, Horrible Bosses, and Tower Heist) and buddy comedies (The Other Guys, The Change-Up, 30 Minutes or Less, and Harold & Kumar), less and less comedies are featuring one lead actor.
Back in the 90s, Jim Carrey could open a comedy on his own, playing zany characters in Ace Ventura, The Mask, The Cable Guy, and Liar, Liar. In the last decade, he's become far more profitable in kids' movies (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who) than he has with adult comedies. However, he's still a cash cow, as he's proven with Bruce Almighty, Fun with Dick and Jane, and Yes Man. He just doesn't open as big as he does with those other films. In fact, his next film is Burt Wonderstone, a buddy comedy with Steve Carell.
Another bankable solo comedic actor who studios once had on speed dial is Eddie Murphy. Where as most SNL grads have DVD compilations of their skits, Murphy's would consist of his classic 80s films. He started off with buddy comedies like 48hrs and Trading Places, and then ventured out on his own with Beverly Hills Cop, The Golden Child, and (technically) Coming to America. After a few stumbles, Murphy returned in the late 90s with family-friendly fair, like The Nutty Professor, Doctor Doolittle, Norbit, and a slew of incredibly unsuccesful films that have tainted his reputation. These days, his main source of income seems to be the Shrek franchise, where he voices a jackass.
Some would say that Ben Stiller, Murphy's most recent costar, qualifies as well, but the only film he technically carried on his own was There's Something About Mary, and that was more than ten years ago. Since then he's been apart of ensembles and duos in Mystery Men, Zoolander, Meet the Parents, The Royal Tenenbaums, Starsky and Hutch, Dodgeball, and Tropic Thunder. Like Carrey and Murphy, family films seem to be his saving grace, having staked most of his current cred on the Night at the Museum franchise.
This generation's Murphy, however, is Adam Sandler. Year after year, he keeps coming back. Since the 90s, he's starred in Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, Big Daddy, Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, Click, You Don't Mess with the Zohan, Bedtime Stories, and Jack and Jill. Every now and then he costars with an equally bankable name, like Drew Barrymore in The Wedding Singer and 50 First Dates, Jack Nicholson in Anger Management, Kevin James in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Seth Rogen in Funny People, and a bunch of stars, including Chris Rock, in Grown Ups, but he's proven that he doesn't actually need to.
In the current film climate, however, there aren't many comedic actors that studios believe can attract large audiences. And the ones that do, like Will Ferrell and Steve Carell, are in danger of getting typecast for one genre, limiting their options, repeating themselves, and over-saturating the market. So for every handful of over-the-top comedies, they do a more sedated indie. Ferrell dipped his foot in dramedies with Stranger than Fiction, and Carrell has amazed critics with touchingly funny performances in Dan in Real Life and Crazy Stupid Love. But this new wave of actors have forgone the once-popular endeavor of logging as many comedies as the public will allow, no matter how stupid or unfunny, so it's become increasingly difficult to cultivate a new comedy class.
The actors that have committed themselves to comedy, however, shine the most within ensembles, stealing scenes and becoming the go-to-comic of the year. They're paired off or added to jam-packed casts, but never truly trusted with starring roles. And if they do manage to score their own film, it opens small and grosses very little. Cedric the Entertainer tried it with Code Name: The Cleaner, Jamie Kennedy with Kickin' It Old Skool, John C. Reilly with Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Simon Pegg with Run Fatboy Run, Rainn Wilson with The Rocker, Ricky Gervais with Ghost Town, Michael Cera with Youth in Revolt, Will Forte with MacGruber, Jason Bateman with Extract, and, this year, Nick Swardson with Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star.
Last year's breakout star was Zach Galifianakis. After The Hangover, he went onto portray more oddball characters in Dinner for Schmucks, Due Date, the series "Bored to Death," and the sequel to his breakout film. This year's breakout star is Charlie Day from the cult FX series "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." He stole scenes in last year's Going the Distance and this year's Horrible Bosses, and he's been tapped to costar in Guillermo del Toro's 2013 sci-fi action film Pacific Rim alongside Idris Elba (The Losers and "Luther") and Charlie Hunnam ("Sons of Anarchy"), no doubt as the comic relief.
In the past, the natural progression for a comedic actor after making a name for themselves was choosing projects where they got more lines. But this young generation of comedic actors are far more enterprising. Seth Rogen went from a couple of lines in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, to a costarring role in Knocked Up, to writing and producing his own projects, some that he co-starred in (Pineapple Express, Funny People, and 50/50) and others that he took a backseat in (Superbad and the upcoming Neighborhood Watch). His fellow Judd Apatow protege, Jonah Hill, also worked his way up from bit roles (Accepted, Knocked Up, and Evan Almighty) to a costarring role (Superbad). But after realizing he'd only get as far as casting agents would allow, he padded his resume with a few more bit roles (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Funny People, and The Invention of Lying), while he got in shape and started writing his own stuff. Eventually he worked his way back up with the dramatic indie Cyrus, the buddy comedy Get Him to the Greek, and the sports film Moneyball. Now he has his own animated comedy on FOX, "Allen Gregory," he executive produced his upcoming comedy The Sitter, which he is the star of, and he's written and executive produced his most anticipated film, the action buddy comedy 21 Jump Street. Continuing the Apatow-ian legacy, Jason Segel propelled himself from tall doofy roles in "Freaks and Geeks" and "How I Met Your Mother," to his first writing credit and starring role in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, his first buddy comedy I Love You Man, and most epically his dream role in The Muppets revival, in which he not only wrote the script but created his own Muppet.

So it would appear that the era of the comedic leading actor has ended. Triple threats, who write, direct, and produce their own content, are the future. And sharing the spotlight is the key to making sure they have one. The question is whether audiences who prefer duos and ensembles to solitary lead roles are simply interested in getting more laughs for their buck, or if actors who are flying solo (and the screenwriters who feed them their lines) just aren't worth it anymore.

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