As I sat through the execrable JUST GO WITH IT, the latest Adam Sandler “phone in” job, I realized how much that I never really wanted to see him in one of his lame comedies again. Sure, I’ll pay to see him in something that’s challenging, like the terrific drama PUNCH DRUNK LOVE he did with Paul Thomas Anderson in 2002, but not in these tepid yuckfests. (Emphasis on the yuck.) They insult my intelligence and seem to serve as nothing but easy paychecks for stars like him who stopped being compelling in this kind of material a long time ago. (Same with Matthew McConaughey, Kate Hudson, J-Lo, and Jennifer Aniston as well.)
Thankfully there are a couple of new comedians who I do find immensely compelling: Russell Brand and Zach Galifianakis. They give me a new hope, Obi Wan Kenobi, and I hope they have long careers in Hollywood. Both are engaging, hysterical, as well as naughty and wild and dangerous. And I think they’re exactly what the all too predictable world of movie comedies need these days.
British comic Russell Brand first made a huge splash in movies on this side of the pond in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (2008), one of the decade’s funniest and sweetest romantic comedies. He played Kristen Bell’s new boyfriend Aldous Snow, a hedonistic rock star vacationing with her in Hawaii, while her ex (Jason Segel) vacationed there as well, still not over her. Brand stole every scene he had, and was such a natural that it appeared his entire performance was ad-libbed. (If you’ve seen the extras on the DVD, indeed he did ad-lib quite a lot of his part.) It was a supporting role but it made him a star.
Brand looks, talks and dresses like a rock star. But his music is comedy. And he’s everywhere these days, and when he shows up, be it in movies, on talk shows, hosting gigs on MTV, or handing out Oscars with Dame Helen Mirren, he is always Russell Brand. Candid and lurid, commenting on the Emperor’s new clothes with a razor sharp wit, he’s clearly having a ball being his bawdy, blunt self. And it’s contagious to everyone he encounters. (He even relaxed the hackles of Elizabeth Hasselbeck when he guested on ABC’s THE VIEW last year. Not an easy task that.) Brand might be the closest thing we have to a Groucho Marx in our midst today. Like Marx, Brand is a leering, playful cat, albeit one with claws. He’s both predator and spectator, in the action and commenting on it at the same time.
Brand is about to open in the remake of the Dudley Moore classic ARTHUR (1981). Hopefully he won’t be playing the title role as an alcoholic, not only because drug abuse isn’t particularly funny anymore, but mostly because such mood manipulation isn’t necessary for Brand. Katy Perry’s husband is high on life and by watching him one gets a contact high. His is a welcome new presence in movies, and I for one hope he’s around a long, long time.
And then there is the short, chubby, surly, and hirsute Galifianakis. Doesn’t he look like an angry lawn gnome to you, a psycho leprechaun carrying his pot of gold under his beer-stained T-shirt? He seems to be a borderline personality. You don’t know if he’s f**cked up or just f**cking with you. Maybe a little of both. All I know is that when he’s on the screen, it’s difficult to watch anyone else. Crazy sure does get your attention.
Galifianakis had been a favorite in the stand-up world for a good decade before he broke through in 2009 with THE HANGOVER. Finally movie audiences could see what comedy club patrons had known for some time. Galifianakis was dangerous, truly out there, a gruff man-child who was both vicious and vulnerable. His unhinged performance drives the lunacy of the movie. And he became the breakout star of it. He may be the most unusual A-lister since Christopher Walken, with his heavy beard, bed head hair, protruding gut and SoHo bum wardrobe, Galifianakis actually kind of looks like a hangover! And yet there’s a great deal of lively mischief in those lidded eyes glaring out from under those two bushy awnings for eyebrows.
If you’ve seen him in his supporting role on HBO’s BORED TO DEATH, or watched his short talk show spoofs on FUNNY OR DIE, or enjoyed him hosting SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, you know that Galifianakis can get more laughs by remaining perfectly quiet than most comics can with 10 minutes of jokes. He, like the great silent screen comedians, is hilarious simply standing still. And in last year’s IT’S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, he used that same sullenness to dramatic advantage in the more serious role of a mental ward patient struggling with depression. This time his brooding intensity made audiences laugh and cry.
One of my all-time favorite actors is Gene Wilder. I’ve always wondered who might be the next of his kind, an actor capable of changing emotions on a dime. One who can be mean, and then in a flash, turn kind. One who could, like Wilder, portray both a fully sexualized adult as well as the virginal naïf. Someone who could explode like a volcano one minute, then convey shyness worthy of a church mouse the next. I think both Brand and Galifianakis have the stuff to be heir apparent to Wilder. (If they ever do a musical of Willy Wonka on Broadway, they should cast Brand, don’t you think?) Like their predecessor, both Brand and Galifianakis are quirky and unusual leading men. They’re comics with a frightening edge. I look forward to both of them kicking the hornet’s nest of Hollywood for some time to come. And imagine what Brand or Galifianakis could do with a rom-com role opposite Jennifer Aniston. Now that I can’t wait to see!