Foxcatcher: When Comic Actors Turn Dark
Anybody who is familiar with the American version of Ricky Gervais' brilliant sitcom The Office will no doubt be aware of the comic talents of its lead actor, Steve Carrell. Since his career-forging appearances alongside Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on The Daily Show, Carrell has carved out a niche for himself as one of America's favourite comic actors with appearances in films like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Bruce Almighty, as well as starring roles in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Date Night.
It's precisely this reputation as a loveable comic presence on the big screen that made Carrell's appearance last year in Bennet Miller's Foxcatcher so shocking. Based on the tragic and bizarre true story of famous wrestling siblings Mark and Dave Schultz, Foxcatcher finds Carrell playing the role of eccentric millionaire John du Pont, heir to the fortune of the DuPont chemical company and the man convicted of the murder of the elder of the brothers, Dave Schultz, in 1996.
Miller's film tells the story of how the Schultz brothers, both former Olympic gold medallists, came to be involved in the wrestling team established at du Pont's private training facility at Foxcatcher Farm in Pennsylvania during the late 1980s, where they both worked until Dave's death in 1996.
Elder brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) is offered a job as a coach for Team Foxcatcher and is shortly joined by his younger brother Mark (Channing Tatum), who competed for the team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Miller's film details the story of the odd and fractious relationship between the brothers and du Pont, whose behaviour became more and more erratic during the later years as a result of his drinking and alleged drug use, finally culminating in Dave's murder in the driveway of his own home and du Pont's diagnosis a paranoid schizophrenic.
Miller's dark and atmospheric film is propelled by some terrific performances from Ruffalo and Tatum, particularly the latter's portrayal of the often moody and difficult Mark Schultz, but it is Carrell who really steals the show here, delivering a brilliant and highly unsettling performance as the increasingly unhinged millionaire. Some of the credit here must go to the make-up department, whose prosthetics make Carrell's character even more creepy, but his Oscar-nominated performance is truly stunning and forces you to completely rethink your perceptions of Carrell as an actor.
You'll be able to get your hands on Miller's powerful and chilling new film when it arrives on DVD & Blu-Ray next week (May 18th) and you can find the trailer below, but in the meantime we've picked another five of the best examples of comic actors 'going straight' and turning in brilliant performances as much darker characters...
Robin Williams in One Hour Photo
The late, great Robin Williams began his career as a stand-up comedian and will always be remembered above all else for the madcap comic genius that brought us the likes of Mrs. Doubtfire, but Williams was no stranger to more serious dramatic roles and his performances in films like Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King serve as a reminder of Williams' versatility as an actor, a fact underlined by his Oscar-winning performance in Good Will Hunting. Even then, his role as Seymour Parish in Mark Romanek's 2002 film One Hour Photo must rank as his most chilling performances. Starring as the lonely photo technician in a suburban mall that becomes obsessed with the Yorkin family, Williams' portrayal is so disturbing it's hard to believe this is the same guy that got his big break in Mork & Mindy.
Jim Carrey in I Love You Philip Morris
Making a name for himself in films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask, Jim Carrey is another comic actor with a number of acclaimed performances in more serious dramatic roles, particularly in The Truman Show and even more so in Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufmann's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. However, one role that often gets overlooked is his portrayal of conman Steven Jay Russell in I Love You Philip Morris. Based on a true story, the film details Russell's numerous fraudulent schemes and his many escapes from various prisons, as well as his love affair with one of his fellow inmates. Russell represents one of the most complex and challenging characters Carrey has portrayed, but he delivers a performance so good that you soon find yourself warming to this conniving confidence trickster, whose story is ultimately one of redemption.
Patton Oswalt in Big Fan
Best known for his stand-up comedy routines and his role in sitcom The King of Queens, Patton Oswalt's cuddly appearance makes it difficult to imagine him having any shred of malice, but his appearance in 2009's Big Fan – written and directed by the man who penned the script for Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, Robert D. Siegel – shows him in a very different light. Oswalt's character Paul is an obsessive New York Giants fans whose sheltered life is turned upside down when he unwittingly witnesses a drug deal involving his hero and the Giants' star player and finds himself on the end of a severe beating from the linebacker. Although he is hospitalised, he refuses to sue as he fears it will affect the performances of his team, but when his injury lawyer brother brings a civil lawsuit on his behalf, Paul begins to feel the pressure and, ill-equipped to deal with the public attention, he eventually snaps.
Peter Sellers in Lolita
Often regarded as one of the greatest comedians of all time, Peter Sellers' film roles often made use of his comic acting abilities, from his appearances in the Pink Panther movies as the hapless Inspector Clouseau to his role in the blackest of black comedies, Dr. Strangelove, but it was his relationship with the latter's director, Stanley Kubrick, that saw him cast as one of his most despicable characters. Based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Kubrick's 1962 film remains one of his most controversial thanks to the subject matter involving underage sex, but even in this context Sellers' role as the pornographer Clare Quilty stands out as the nastiest thing on offer here. This isn't for the faint-hearted or the easily offended, but Sellers' performance is downright chilling and if you can stomach the film, it's well worth watching.
Mo'Nique in Precious
Our final entry on this list is perhaps the most surprising of all. Comedian Monique Hicks – better known simply as Mo'Nique – enjoyed a successful career in stand-up and sitcom acting, but up until 2009 her outings on the big screen presented an unenviable filmography that includes titles like Beerfest and Phat Girlz (no, us neither). Then, out of nowhere, she was cast in Lee Daniels film Precious as the overbearing and abusive mother of a young girl and a boy with downs syndrome. Hicks delivers a simply stunning performance that won her an Oscar and a list of other awards as long as you'd care to imagine, and rightly so. This is a proper tour-de-force performance in an extremely challenging role that's every bit as difficult to watch as it must have been to deliver. Mo'Nique. Who knew?