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A model 'nut job'

In the Farrelly Bros.' latest, Malin Akerman gets to do what the guys do: throw all physical comedy caution to the wind.

October 03, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

To say that Malin Akerman is game would be a criminal understatement.

It's hard to imagine Cate Blanchett or even such funny ladies as Téa Leoni or Catherine Keener playing a snoring, gassy, needy, nipple-twisting, profanity-spewing, acrobatic sexual animal with a past cocaine addiction and major grooming issues in a mainstream Hollywood comedy. But as the loopy Lila in the Farrelly Bros.-directed remake of "The Heartbreak Kid" opening Friday, Akerman takes "anything for a laugh" to some surprising extremes.

"It sucks because the guys always get these roles, they always get the fun parts," Akerman says, acknowledging that she ended up playing the type of physical role that's traditionally the domain of costar Ben Stiller (who takes his lumps too, natch). "I was like, 'Go for it, humiliate me all you want!' "

"Nobody wants to see a woman humiliated," says Bobby Farrelly, who cowrote and codirected the movie. "That doesn't sound like it's funny. I think she can pull it off because she's so damn pretty too -- that somehow or another you just feel like, 'Oh, she's gonna be just fine. . . . ' "

It's difficult to describe just how committed Akerman is as Lila -- the "nut job" environmental researcher who finally settles Stiller's commitment-phobe, only to turn their honeymoon into a symposium on just how horrible a mistake he's actually made -- without giving away some of the best gags.

Suffice it to say that there are very few women -- let alone former models -- who would agree to be photographed with a juicy chunk of tri-tip jutting out of one cracked and sunburned nostril. Throw in some unusual flatulence, remarkable displays of stupidity, a montage of annoying Gloria Estefan-Barry Manilow-Spice Girls car karaoke and a few more nose-and-face disfiguring comic bits, and it adds up to the most unselfconscious performance by an actress in a comedy in recent memory.

"I've been a bit of a goof my whole life," says the 29-year-old actress (whose name is pronounced Mah-lin). Akerman was born in Stockholm, moved to Toronto as a toddler and went on to model around Europe and do TV commercials through high school and college. (Her mother was a model.)

"My mother is one of those sarcastic, crazy people who's embarrassed me so much that I can't get embarrassed anymore," Akerman says by phone from Vancouver, where she's in the midst of fight training for her upcoming role as the Silk Spectre in the superhero ensemble "Watchmen." "The way I grew up prepared me for the Farrelly Bros. So the crazier it is, the more fun it is to do."

"It is that thing that we can beat up our guys," says Bobby Farrelly. "We've had a lot of funny characters in our movies, but we've never had a female character that was this funny. . . . She's just totally fearless."

Which is the kind of thing male clowns like Stiller, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell and Jack Black get kudos for all the time. But in the world of actresses, "bravery" usually gets stamped on performances that display an emotional nakedness in a dramatic context. Brazen physical comedy or unattractiveness on the big screen is far more rare in an industry that congratulates Cameron Diaz -- to whom the Farrelly Bros. claim Akerman is a successor -- for being "uglified" in "Being John Malkovich" and casts Kate Winslet as the dumpy one in "Little Children."

"The general thought is that there aren't a lot of women who may be willing to put themselves all the way out there. . . " says Akerman. "And I understand that, because most women are raised to go on their beauty. It's very different when guys grow up -- it's joking around and hanging out. And girls are dainty and 'Let's go get our nails done.' Not having grown up like that, and just goofing off and having silly parents, maybe took away from that a little bit [for me]."

Akerman's lack of modesty for a comic payoff first got her noticed in the raunchy 2004 stoner comedy, "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," in which she played the randy Liane. She went on to hone her comedy chops as Lisa Kudrow's younger costar on the short-lived HBO series "The Comeback."

She certainly knew what she was getting into when she signed on to the "Heartbreak Kid" script, but that still left open the possibility of last-minute on-set suggestions. After a few weeks of filming, the Farrelly Bros. were having doubts that an audience would buy that Stiller's character would leave Akerman -- even with all her idiocy and even with costar Michelle Monaghan -- waiting in the wings, so they ramped up the crazy factor even more.

"There were a few times when I'd get on set," Akerman says, "and Peter would come up and be like, 'So, Malin, we were thinking . . .' And I'm just going, 'Uh-oh,' in my head. It would be these crazy lines. . . . " She launches into dialogue suitable only to the raunchiest of Farrelly movies. "And it's just like, 'Oh, great, I'm really excited to say this.' And they're like, 'No, let's just see what happens. We can cut it in the editing room.' "

"Malin made it work by really committing," says Bobby Farrelly. "Secretly some actors and actresses, they don't ever want the audience to leave them and that gets in the way of good comedy. We've had some guys do that over the years, where they want to be funny but they want to be loved too."

Akerman seems likely to emerge from the film as both, despite a startling visual display of mock nudity near the end that provokes gasps of both hilarity and awed disbelief.

"That was the most compromising, awkward thing that you can do," Akerman says. "I mean, let me just clarify this: It is not truly myself. Didn't go Method on that. But at the same time, I knew the end result would be a good laugh. Giving people laughter is a really cool gift, so I'm happy to do it. It's for a good cause."

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