Debate Club: Best Comedic Actor in a Dramatic Role

Debate Club: The best performance by a comedic actor going serious in genre

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Jun 27, 2018

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this week's installment, in honor of comedy month here at SYFY WIRE, we're looking at the best comedic actors going serious in sci-fi or genre films.

It is the curse of every comedian: they want to be Taken Seriously. Even though it's probably much harder to make people laugh, all comedians have that little voice inside them that says, "You need gravitas!" This doesn't always work — see Jerry Lewis' infamous The Day the Clown Cried — but it is as inevitable as the sunset. But when it does work, it can shed light on the comedian's best instincts and show them as much more than we realized.

Here's a look at the five best performances by comedians in serious roles in genre/sci-fi films.

Kristen Wiig, The Martian (2015)

Former Saturday Night Live dynamo and Best Original Screenplay nominee Kristen Wiig has dabbled in drama with The Skeleton Twins. (Her straight-faced Lifetime goof A Deadly Adoption doesn't count.) Still, it was a surprise to see her playing the cold-blooded head of NASA public relations in The Martian. While most of her colleagues busy themselves trying to figure out how they can get Mark Watney (Matt Damon) home safe, her Annie Montrose is consumed with thinking about optics, far more concerned with NASA's image than this astronaut's rescue. But Wiig has often been uproarious when she's vicious — it just so happens that, in The Martian, her character isn't meant to be funny. (Also, bonus points for Wiig's psychotic role as the fiercely devoted publicist in Darren Aronofsky's fever-dream horror film mother!)

Jack Black, King Kong (2005)

Black was at the peak of his box office power in 2005, still riding high off of School of Rock, when Peter Jackson cast him as huckster P.T. Barnum knockoff Carl Denham in his ambitious, long, and often quite staggering remake of one of the most famous movies of all time. Naomi Watts is the real star of the show, but Black is effective as the filmmaker who messes with forces he doesn't entirely understand. Black never breaks character to wink at the audience and, all told, he attacks a giant man-eating scorpion as well as anyone might expect him to.

Steve Martin, The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

One of the 1970s' biggest stand-up comics, Steve Martin has struck gold with lots of different disciplines, including music, playwriting, and as an Oscar host. He's also got serious dramatic chops, whether you’re talking about his role in Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon or his novellas like Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company. But his finest dramatic genre work came in The Spanish Prisoner, in which he plays the mysterious Jimmy Dell, a rich man who befriends the film's overconfident hero Joe (Campbell Scott), an executive who has masterminded a potentially lucrative financial system known simply as "The Process." The two men become friends, but does Jimmy have an ulterior motive?

Writer-director David Mamet is an expert at crafting twisty thrillers full of enigmatic characters, and Martin is terrific as a guy whose agenda remains wonderfully unclear throughout The Spanish Prisoner. There are no jokes or sight gags — just the unsettling menace of Martin's cool intelligence and his unsmiling face, concealing secrets we're uncertain we want to have revealed.

Albert Brooks, Drive (2011)

Brooks had tapped into a certain darkness as an actor before, in Out of Sight and even Sidney Lumet's long-forgotten Critical Care, but suffice it to say that no one was quite ready for the affable but nervous Aaron Altman from Broadcast News or the nebbish from Taxi Driver (not to mention the hero from his own movies) to, out of nowhere, stick a knife in some guy's eye.

Brooks is all menace and terror in Drive, all the scarier because he never blinks: this is not a funny guy being mean, it's just a mean guy who dominates with force and fury. It's a remarkable performance that grows a little more powerful the more you think about it. Who knew he had this in him?

Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

By the time this 2004 mindblower hit theaters, Jim Carrey had already established himself as a reliable dramatic actor, winning Golden Globes for The Truman Show and Man on the Moon. (Annoyingly, he received no Oscar nomination for either film.) But whereas those previous roles still tapped into his wild, crazy energy, his portrayal of the thoroughly depressed Joel was smaller, more delicate. On its surface, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a deft, melancholy indie romance, but this is also one of the century's best sci-fi films, playing with the familiar genre trope of erasing memories to touch on something universal about childhood, commitment and the pain of living with a broken heart. Carrey is crucial to the film's greatness, giving us a sensitive guy who's not sure if he'd been better off never falling in love with Clementine (Kate Winslet). Even in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, Carrey's trying to make you laugh. He doesn't do that here — more likely, he'll make you cry.

 

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.