The Watch has arrived in cinemas and annoyingly it’s a predictable offering from some of Hollywood’s biggest comedy names. Routine is the buzzword here. While Richard Ayoade makes his US feature acting debut Ben Stiller gives us his nervy everyman, Vince Vaughn is a scoundrel with a heart and Jonah Hill is the funny weirdo. Sound familiar? They’re pretty much cut-and-paste jobs from any number of entries on their acting CVs.
Problem? Well, maybe not. They’re well-rehearsed, popular routines, but routines they remain and there’s something disheartening about leaving a cinema feeling entirely uninspired and talking about the weather. These are guys who are capable of really great work. Stiller made a lasting impression with Zoolander and Vaughn started his career with cult classic Swingers, but with the occasional exception their collective sense of bravado and wit has felt a bit diluted in their careers since.
Right now Jonah Hill’s the one to watch. His unshowy dramatic turn opposite Brad Pitt in statistical baseball drama Moneyball scored him an Oscar nomination and now he’s working with Leonardo DiCaprio on Martin Scorsese’s drama The Wolf of Wall Street. He’s edging ever closer towards the elusive ‘character actor’ label, which must be one of the craziest – and yet most necessary – job descriptions in the professional world. Presumably big-name stars have to arrange a special meeting with their agent when they decide they want to pursue a career playing ‘someone else’ on screen.
Maybe comedy stars – like their action counterparts – just need to be made aware of their true potential. Perhaps the Hollywood bubble needs to be burst and the Massive Comedy Star will experience a revelation that drives him to push the boundaries of the dramatic arts with a searching email to his agent:
“Dear Agent: I saw a movie last night that didn’t make me laugh. A little more research revealed a startling truth: there are other movies out there besides comedies, where actors often play completely different characters from one story to the next…!
“I’d like myself a piece of this action. I’ve been watching a whole bunch of movies recently – including comedies actually – and it turns out there are a lot of actors who play people with different personalities in every film. It’s practically an art form and it seems they might have had special training beyond carefully honing a single comedy persona in a massively popular TV show. They’re called ‘character’ actors, which helps signify them as actors who don’t play versions of themselves.
“Why am I not being put forward for these kinds of roles? Obviously I’m best known for the regular sort of screen acting where I play myself. My name changes from film to film but everything else is broadly similar. Improvising a bit with some wacky dialogue and the odd flourish of physical comedy helps divert audiences from that nagging sense of deja vu.
“I’m not complaining. This kind of thing pays well because it’s popular and it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort, but now I’m quite keen to try something a bit different. Maybe redefine the art form a little bit and try being someone else. That’s what ‘acting’ and ‘performance’ were originally supposed to be all about anyway, right? Yours, Massive Comedy Star.”
So what next for the Massive Comedy Star seeking a challenge? Well, shedding the nice-guy image and likability is one option, especially if the aim is to branch out beyond comedy. Robin Williams became a scary weirdo in both One Hour Photo and Insomnia, while Will Ferrell played around with accountancy in Stranger Than Fiction.
Perhaps it’s a bit extreme to demand that comedians embrace their inner psychopath in a challenging quest to deliver something different. It doesn’t have to be a challenge. But unexpected would be great, and, maybe as an added bonus, in the words of one of Stiller’s greatest creations, really, really, really good-looking.