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Actors, outside the box

March 26, 2007|CARINA CHOCANO

WHERE would the movie industry be without compartmentalization? It's the imperative that keeps things humming in the face of long hours, longer odds, grim success-to-failure ratios. It protects actors against iffy prospects, writers against crippling insights, makes it possible for young assistants to duck the hurled phone and think of the awesome opportunity. And the glamour.

So maybe it's no wonder that the attitude toward genre in Hollywood is so strict and roped-off, with comedy and drama remaining snugly within their marketing niches. Nor is it any surprise that their occasional cross-pollination generates an undue amount of anxiety. When comedic actors like Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, to cite the most recent examples, take on serious or semi-serious roles, they face not only greater scrutiny but also a whole lot of questions -- or possibly just one big one: Why not just stick to comedy?

The lament is as old as the hills, or at least as old as 1980, when Woody Allen counterlamented it in the opening scenes of "Stardust Memories." The primary American proponent, since Chaplin, of misfortune as a source of comedy, Allen made a career out of mining pain and discomfort for humor and later slowly unmade it in infinitesimal increments, as the deep melancholy gave way to self-parodic whining.

Though they have always been around, it's the big, broad slapstick comedies that have now come to define what we think of as comedy, edging out smaller films that reflect the recognizably human indignities and setbacks of daily life. For that, we have to look to foreign and small, or often overlooked American independents. The general shift has coincided with the increased influence of studio marketing-department gurus who demand that movies fall into categories they know how to sell. When the movies don't abide by those constraints, they are often misrepresented in trailers, on movie posters and DVD covers, which sends the signal that people must be tricked into seeing them. The recent, surprising success of "Little Miss Sunshine" might indicate a swing of the pendulum in another direction, but for the most part, American comedy has moved away from feeling and sharing your pain and toward deflecting it -- from catharsis to avoidance.

Granted, movie history is littered with the fallout from decisions like the move to green-light "Patch Adams"; few things compel one to avert the eyes like Robin Williams doing a running leap into a tub of overheated pathos. On the other hand, the impulse of comic actors to try drama sometimes results in felicitous surprises, such as Sandler's performance in "Punch-Drunk Love," which made excellent, unsettling use of his mentally unstable man-child persona by taking it out of the unreal context of slapstick and placing it in an environment of soul-deadening mundaneness. Likewise, Jim Carrey's performance in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" made uncanny use of what we secretly believe to be the persona of the comedian at rest: melancholy, insecure and desperate to fend off his creeping loneliness.

Comedians are inseparable from their personas, and the success of their transition into acting tends to hinge on finding a role that acknowledges the character they are known for and then plays against it. Bill Murray failed at his first attempt, the awful "The Razor's Edge," nailed it in "Rushmore," confirmed it in "Lost in Translation" and calcified it with "Broken Flowers." Similarly, Sandler's volatile arrested development felt electrifying and profound in the modern-wasteland environment of "Punch-Drunk Love." But in "Reign Over Me," in which his character regresses into pre-adolescence after his family is killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, it's impossible to imagine that he was ever anything other than the autistic baby-man we see in front of us, let alone a successful dentist and father of three.

Written and directed by Mike Binder, "Reign Over Me" is the story of a successful, married professional man (Don Cheadle) who reconnects with his old college roommate (Sandler) after the tragedy. Though "Reign Over Me" is more poignant and heavy-hearted than Chris Rock's essentially sunny "I Think I Love My Wife," the films have a surprising number of things in common. Both involve white-collar buppies living with their families in affluent neighborhoods or suburbs of New York, men in early middle age suffering from existential ennui, both star comedians in dramatic roles, and both grapple with issues more familiar to audiences than, say, Will Ferrell's in "Blades of Glory."

Rock, who co-wrote and co-produced "I Think I Love My Wife," is oddly buttoned-down in his bourgeois American version of Eric Rohmer's "Chloe in the Afternoon," and the movie might have been sharper had he built on the wry, biting satire of the early scenes.

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