Sitting through the drudge that was Little Fockers last year, I found myself growing more and more miserable at just how far Robert De Niro had fallen. Here was one of the finest actors of his generation, spewing out lines that Martin Lawrence might seriously consider asking for a rewrite on. And the joke of him playing against type, three films on, had long since worn off.
This whole idea of deploying an actor playing against type isn’t without merit, but it still needs good quality writing to pull it off. And then, an actor who can at least wrap their heads around the idea of what they’re doing. Look at Leslie Nielsen in Airplane!, with the trick being that he played it straight, without pretending to be anything he’s not. Backed with good material, it worked a treat. But that’s an exception to an often quite depressing rule.
I sort of blame the success of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Twins for kicking off much of this stuff. Whilst actors had played against type in a comedy before, Arnie made a blockbuster out of it, with Twins making the kind of money that follow-up projects Kindergarten Cop, Junior and Jingle All The Way failed to match. Since then, we’ve had the likes of Vin Diesel (The Pacifier), De Niro again (Analyze This) and The Rock (Tooth Fairy) all attempting to play against type in a comedy, to differing degrees of commercial success. There are many, many other examples.
I think that the days of hinging an entire film around a serious actor or action star in a comedy role they’re ill-suited for should be quietly ended, personally. Because once you’ve got past the one joke (the high concept is about the biggest selling point of such films), there’s rarely much left. Granted, Twins has a few chuckles, and Meet The Parents worked well. But they are exceptions to the rule. In the first Meet The Parents, too, De Niro was in a more appropriate straight man role, allowing others to do the hard, lesser-appreciated comedy work. The sequels diluted that.
The problem is that novelty casting often disregards the fact that comedy is hard. Judd Apatow has, recently, called for the Academy to recognise comedy in its own category at the Oscars, given the minimal regard it gets in the existing categories. You can’t see the Academy agreeing, although it did eventually give animated features a category of their own, which neatly sidesteps them having to address the fact that there’s an argument for far more animated movies to have been up for a Best Picture Oscar. In comedy, it’s the same. How Steve Martin never got an Oscar nomination for his early 80s comedy work is to the constant shame of the Academy.
Comedy, I’d argue, is one of the trickiest genres to pull off. Writing a quality comedy script, which won’t be able to be properly put before an audience for a good year or two, and then turning that into a successful production, is surely just as tricky as making an Oscar-baiting biopic. And yet, outside of the odd Woody Allen film, it’s barely respected.
And it should be.
For that to happen, I’d argue that comedy film makers could be a little savvier with their casting for starters. Horrible Bosses, just hitting DVD and Blu-ray now, wasn’t a bad example of this. Because what director Seth Gordon and his team hatched upon here was bringing in actors playing against type, and putting them in small supporting roles. That way, they didn’t have to carry the picture, but could come in, work with a small segment of material, and the playing against type was a nice treat, rather than the sole reason to sell us a ticket.
I’m thinking in particular the cameo from Kevin Spacey, whose comedy in the film works because he plays it entirely straight. And also Colin Farrell, who proved himself an excellent semi-comedic lead in In Bruges, and demonstrates that timing again here. Look, too, at Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder, the famous faces in the opening sequence of Austin Powers: Goldmember, and even a drop of Chuck Norris in Dodgeball (whose mere appearance is properly mined for comedy effect). They’re names you wouldn’t expect in a comedy, but they’ve been skilfully woven in.
It’s one example of how comedy can have fun with differing material, and differing talent. But it also proves that the package needs to be right for this to work. It’s not enough to get a big name that you wouldn’t expect to see in a comedy, and slap their face on the poster. Comedy is a more skilful art than that, and casting is one area where it really should be respected.