Sunday, November 28, 2010

Post-A-Day: Jack Black's Lament - The Law of Diminishing Returns for the Man-Child

Recognize this guy? That's Jack Black. You're probably familiar with his body (to forgive the pun) of work. And if you've seen a few of his movies, you probably have a strong opinion about him, one way or another. And if the internet and box office sales are any indication - there's a good chance that by now it's a negative one. It's certainly not a guarantee (I personally am still fine with him, though I prefer him in small doses), but I've noticed that a certain subset of comedic actors, specifically ones that play a 'man-child' character regularly - men who are either inept, immature, lazy, or moronic, or some combination of the four - ultimately find themselves out of luck as leading men in a relatively short period of time.

Actors like Denzel Washington, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro can pretty much play the types of characters they're known for (the strong, silent type, or the strong, loud type, take your pick) forever. Audiences expect it, they get it, they're happy. But comedic actors who play very heightened characters - Will Ferrell, Mike Meyers, Adam Sandler, almost anyone who's come from SNL really - start at a distinct disadvantage. They can enjoy success with a handful of movies, but once audiences learn their schtick, they seemingly have three choices: go dramatic (/tone it down), go animated, or go home.

Jim Carrey is perhaps the best example of this trend. Consider his career, which started on a sketch comedy show, In Living Color, which lead to his first lead in a motion picture: Ace Ventura, (who was, to date, his most ridiculous human character on the big screen), followed by The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Batman Forever, The Cable Guy, then Liar, Liar. These characters were all either largely comedically flawed, or put into circumstances in which they became something ridiculous. Cable Guy was considered Carrey's first big misstep, having flopped at the box office, and it was shortly after this film that he started to go dramatic - starring in The Truman Show, Man on the Moon, and The Majestic (his second big flop). And while he has gone back to comedies since the late 90's, his successes ares mostly limited to voice-over work in animated comedies (Bruce Almighty being a notable exception).

You could argue that this was Carrey's choice - he had done comedy for over 10 years, and wanted to show off his acting chops in more serious, dramatic roles. And it's certainly possible his desires lined up with what needed to happen for him, career-wise. But either way, I'd argue that if he continued to play only comedic roles similar to where he started, his name would be nowhere near as well known as it is now. Let's return once again to Jack Black, who actually has a pretty fantastic resume, playing a supporting role in a LOT of movies and television shows over the course of 20+ years. But his leading man status shows that since his first big lead role as Shallow Hal in 2001, he's been in more flops (Year One, Tenacious D, King Kong, Be Kind Rewind) than successes (Tropic Thunder, Nacho Libre, which IMDB hails as a success, to my surprise). Black is the best example to my knowledge of a known comedic actor who for the most part has stuck to his guns long term, for better or worse. His only notable recent success as a leading man comes in the form of an animated feature, Kung Fu Panda, (and likely, it's forthcoming sequels).

Will Farrell's post-SNL movie career has had similar ups and downs, though his only major attempt at a more dramatic role, Stranger Than Fiction, met with mixed success, and he's since had his biggest box office flop with the comedy Land of the Lost. Of his two most recent films The Other Guys and Megamind, the former live action, the latter animated, Megamind is the much larger success. Ferrell is another actor who most people seem to have made up their mind about at this point - they either love him or they hate him. Animated films offer a small filter that can hide the initial gut feeling seeing an actor on screen might elicit.

Looking at other comedic actors who play less man-child, and more "impish adult", you have your Ben Stillers, your Owen/Luke Wilsons, your Vince Vaughns. These actors have either mixed up their resume from the beginning, playing a combination of dramatic and comedic roles, or they've generally played characters who, at worst, just need a shave, a kick in the ass, and/or an attractive female lead to get their act together, thus avoided the potential comedy pitfall from the beginning (as a side note - as far as I can tell, Vince Vaughn is generally playing either a more irritable or a hornier version of himself) To his credit though, Ben Stiller has both pretended to have his penis get caught in the teeth of his pants zipper and allowed fake semen to appear hanging from his ear, so certainly some credit goes to him.

Other actors worth mentioning - Chris Rock (who I personally love as a comedian but can't stand as an actor) has stopped playing some of the larger-than-life characters he once played in UB4 and Pootie Tang to much more muted characters in I Think I Love My Wife and Death At A Funeral. Adam Sandler has followed a path similar to Jim Carrey, though he's certainly stuck to his comedic roots more than him. Having said this, his characters from his past few comedic roles have all been night and day from his time playing Billy Madison, Little Nicky and The Water Boy.

It's possible that it's just an age thing. Audiences may be willing to accept the man-child performance from an actor in his early to mid 20's, and less if they're older (though I think most of the actors I've listed were doing it in their early 30's, in fact), where from a believability standpoint, its just harder to buy these men surviving in a world so mentally and emotionally stunted. I recently saw David Spade in a scene in Rules of Engagement deflecting all common sense about a woman blowing him off, and seeing him play a middle aged man so completely in the dark struck me as less comedic and more sad than anything. Having said this, Steve Carrell, who I personally love to death, got big in his 40's playing a 40 Year Old Virgin, very recently played another man-child in Dinner For Schmucks, and continues to play one of the most emotionally immature men on television in The Office every week, so he may very well be the exception to the rule.

These actors are of course all adept at their craft, and with the exceptions I've listed I personally still enjoy most of their work - but I find it fascinating to see how audiences slowly turn on them. Often the ridiculous characters these actors play in movies start off as supporting characters - a la Jack Black in High Fidelity or Saving Silverman, so when these characters/actors come to the forefront, it's interesting to see if and how they tone it down.

It's still a bit too early to tell where Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, and Seth Rogen (soon to appear in his first semi-dramatic role in The Green Hornet), and many other of the younger, budding post-Apatow comedic actors will wind up eventually, but I'm certainly interested to see if this trend continues.


PS: My mother's always a good litmus test for where the actor stands with the general public - if she likes him: "he's so silly!", if she doesn't: "I like that other guy more," or...silence.

PPS: Wow, weird timing of this post - I wouldn't have ever thought to mention Leslie Nielson, and I'm not sure where to fit him in my thesis, but for now I'll just say he definitely used to make me smile, and for that I'm grateful.


kristyncarter97 said...

lol jack black it funny as hell hahahahahahaha

steve said...

i guess this blog is to harsh on there comedians.talking about Jim carry .he is been ridiculous but i dont think people dont like it at least he is a better comedian then other vulgar comedians. same is with jack black . i guess who will see the movie kung fu panda 2 will realize how to make people laugh with being vulgar