After seeing the preview for Ben Stiller’s new indie-drama Greenberg, the first thing I thought was, “Wow, that looks awesome.” The second thing I thought was, “Wait, has Ben Stiller acted in a serious movie before?” In Greenberg, Stiller is an irritable, cynical, and on the verge of a midlife crisis. It sounds pretty off-beat compared to his usual ridiculous, idiotic – albeit hysterical – roles (think male model and gym owner). So the question is, will we be able to appreciate him in a more serious light, or will we be constantly preoccupied with the thought of his circumcised foreskin being plunged into a pot of fondue?
Of course, this isn’t a rare phenomenon in the movie industry. We’ve seen it many times: Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, and Robin Williams are all perfect examples of slapstick actors who have transitioned to serious roles. It always seems to work the same way: it’s all or nothing. Either the switch will turn out to be an epic failure or a great success, but nothing in between.
Jim Carrey is a good example. When I think of Jim Carrey, I picture the grotesque scene in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective in which he’s born from the ass of a robotic rhino. But he’s also appeared in a few psychological dramas, such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Number 23. As expected, the former was a knockout while the latter was the complete opposite.
How about Adam Sandler? His comedic roles are so legendary I don’t even have to refresh your memory with character descriptions. And then came along Spanglish. I loved this movie, and not just because Paz Vega is hot. Sandler delivered a heartfelt performance that wasn’t interrupted by thoughts of Happy Gilmore even once.
And Robin Williams? Perhaps he’s proven to be the most versatile. He will forever hold a fond spot in our memories in Mrs. Doubtfire and as Peter Pan in Hook (not to mention his stand-up). But he’s established himself as an exceptional jack-of-all-trades when it comes to acting. Good Will Hunting and One-Hour Photo are just two examples of Williams’ serious side, and he nails both acts brilliantly.
In addition to these notable multi-faceted actors, there are others like Bill Murray, Woody Harrelson and Ashton Kutcher that have shown that we shouldn’t expect the worst from them in out-of-character roles. Audiences tend to have the mentality that people, including actors, should stick to what they know. Maybe part of this is because some people think that comics take on funny roles for a reason, starting out playing up their funny side to mask the fact that they don’t have the talent to act in more serious roles. But this clearly isn’t always the case.
Should actors be restricted to a certain domain just because that’s what they’re known for? Well, it all comes down to what they can pull off. As mentioned before, Robin Williams is a clear-cut example. He will always be recognized for his classic portrayal of hilarious characters, but he will be remembered just as much for his talented performances in other genres. On the other hand, I tend to think that Adam Sandler will be celebrated much more for his comedic work than for his more dramatic work in Spanglish or Punch-Drunk Love (even though both performances were terrific).
Comedic actors often have more up their sleeve than we give them credit for, and I’m very excited to see Greenberg. I love Ben Stiller playing goofy roles like Gaylord Focker, and it will be interesting to see how he does in a serious role – he has as good a chance as any other actor at pulling it off.